Brainiac “Fraud” “Slammed” In The Evening Standard And The Independent

July 28th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, brainiac, evening standard, independent | 23 Comments »

And some of you have been quoted. Nice. If any of you are here from the Evening Standard looking for more on the Brainiac fake experiments nonsense then click here (or, er, buy the Guardian):

www.badscience.net/?cat=58

There’s lots of other quackbusting action on the site, listed by topic down the right hand side of the page, and there’s much more on the Brainiac fake experiments thing in tomorrow’s Bad Science column which I’ll post as soon as it goes live on the Guardian website.

Anyway, here’s the Evening Standard article for those that missed it. It had a picture of the exploding bath, Richard Hammond, and the wire going in to trigger the plastic explosives…

Sky’s ‘fraud’ blown out of water
By Alex Baracaia, Evening Standard
28 July 2006

A TV science programme stands accused of faking experiments to make them more exciting.

Brainiac, the award-winning Sky One series fronted by Richard Hammond of BBC2′s Top Gear, faces criticism from scientists who say its makers turn to special effects when their experiments do not work.

In one episode the show explained how a full bath tub would explode when volatile metals rubidium and caesium were dropped into the water.
It is claimed that when the experiment did not have the desired effect, producers simply rigged the tub with dynamite. While Hammond talks viewers through the procedure as if it is for real, close inspection reveals a wire leading out of the bath.

Ben Goldacre, a neuroscientist and founder of website badscience.net, claims the show habitually fakes its results and justifies the pretence by claiming it is “entertainment”. He said: “Some scientists and teachers have been saying for a while that Brainiac might fake experiments. But I don’t think it even occurs to most people. It certainly didn’t occur to me at first.”

A Sky spokeswoman said: “Brainiac is an entertainment show and the emphasis is on having fun.

“However, all of the experiments have proven theory behind them.We’re known for our love of big explosions, our fans love them and when we add a little something to create a bigger bang everyone is in on the joke.”

But Dr Goldacre said: “Sky saying they are showing what ‘should’ happen is just bizarre. That’s not what science is about.” He said he had asked Sky to confirm the authenticity of other Brainiac experimentsbut the broadcaster had refused.

The Sunday night show, launched in 2003, has been hailed for making science popular with children. It recently won a Royal Television Society award. Past features include testing if a mobile phone can ignite petrol vapours, examining effects of electric shocks, and blowing up caravans.

On the badscience.net forum, one posting reads: “If they’re making cartoons of experiments they should be clearly marked as cartoons.”

Another says: “It’s not good enough to claim, ‘It’s TV, moron, don’t take it seriously.’”

Update:

It’s in the Independent today as well. I do find it slightly strange how newspapers don’t want to mention that I did this story for the Guardian (who I love): so the “Bad Science Website” is also quoted in the Independent as the source. The funny thing is, I mean, I realise this isn’t the most exciting story in the world that anybody would want to spend a lot of time researching, but they just lifted a few quotes, and if they’d emailed me I could have given plenty more examples and damning background. Ho hum. Only trying to help.

Sky admits its science show faked explosions
By Cahal Milmo
The Independent
29 July 2006

To viewers of the science programme Brainiac, the exploding bath seemed spectacular proof of the potency of what the presenter described as “the two dog’s nuts of the periodic table”.

In fact the blast was not the result of a meeting between water and rubidium and caesium, but the triggering of a bomb, Sky television confirmed yesterday.

The artifice was spotted by Dr Ben Goldacre, who runs the Bad Science website dedicated to exposing pseudo-science.

The programme promises viewers that the experiments on the show – ranging from blowing up caravans with different gases to seeing if a mobile phone ignites petrol vapours – arebased on proved science.

But in a 2004 episode, the producers compromised. Explaining what happened when the metals were put in the bath, a crew member said: “Absolutely bloody nothing. The density of caesium ensured it hit the bottom of the bath like a lead weight. The volume of water then drowned out the thermal shock. They could not go home empty-handed. So they rigged a bomb in the bottom of the bath.”

Sky said its viewers would be aware when the effects of any experiment had been exaggerated. Those responsible were longer part of the production team.

To viewers of the science programme Brainiac, the exploding bath seemed spectacular proof of the potency of what the presenter described as “the two dog’s nuts of the periodic table”.

In fact the blast was not the result of a meeting between water and rubidium and caesium, but the triggering of a bomb, Sky television confirmed yesterday.

The artifice was spotted by Dr Ben Goldacre, who runs the Bad Science website dedicated to exposing pseudo-science.

The programme promises viewers that the experiments on the show – ranging from blowing up caravans with different gases to seeing if a mobile phone ignites petrol vapours – arebased on proved science.

But in a 2004 episode, the producers compromised. Explaining what happened when the metals were put in the bath, a crew member said: “Absolutely bloody nothing. The density of caesium ensured it hit the bottom of the bath like a lead weight. The volume of water then drowned out the thermal shock. They could not go home empty-handed. So they rigged a bomb in the bottom of the bath.”

Sky said its viewers would be aware when the effects of any experiment had been exaggerated. Those responsible were longer part of the production team.


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23 Responses



  1. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 28, 2006 at 9:57 pm

    I particularly enjoy how, although I said I was a medical doctor, they call me a neuroscientist, which I last was in about 1997, because they want a scientist slamming Brainiac. And they quoted the source as www.badscience.net instead of the Guardian, I guess because it looks groovier to lift stories from websites rather than other newspapers. Anyway, god knows why I’m whinging, I think it’s great that somebody else picked this up. For a show that trades on how wacky and crazy it is for really doing dangerous stuff, Brainiac are wriggling pretty pathetically.

  2. Pedantica said,

    July 28, 2006 at 10:45 pm

    Ooo I reckon I can write a precis of one of your stories and copy a couple of comments. Can I be an Evening Standard journalist too?

  3. Art West said,

    July 29, 2006 at 1:47 am

    On a semi-related topic, it’s a shame that BBC2 have decided to show versions of Mythbusters which are cut down, badly revoiced and, in my opinion, dumbed down. It looks like the experiments will be hurtled through with some of the thought processes cut. Their false starts and back-to-the-drawingboard moments are often the most interesting bits and, I would have thought, give a rather more realistic idea of what goes into designing a successful experiment.
    For BBC2 to be showing a less intelligent version of a programme than that screened on a commercial satellite channel must be a new low.

  4. crgn said,

    July 29, 2006 at 9:09 am

    It’s pretty standard policy for papers not to give credit for a story to another paper, and can you imagine the Standard admitting the Guardian got there first? Not a chance.

  5. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 29, 2006 at 9:35 am

    the thing that really amazed me, I have to say, was that no single paper picked up on the malyszewicz MRSA thing, given that it de-rugged about 20 major headline stories. although to be fair i did get one call from a tabloid who wanted to do a story on how malyszewicz was evil and had ripped off and defrauded the papers. considering most of the papers, if not all, had been told point blank that his lab was a joke, and their story was too, at the time, this struck me as being a slightly pisspoor spin on the story.

  6. Teek said,

    July 29, 2006 at 10:28 am

    good to see the Standard picking up on this indeed Ben, but to be honest i’m not that amazed that papers picked up on this rather than Dr MRSA. in this story the Standard gets to debunk a TV show, with the backing of, as they put it, a neuroscientist, and the debunking doesnt affect their own stable of publications. however, if they ran stories about Dr. Malawotsit turning out to be a fraud, they’re in trouble – as you said above, your expose on Malawotsit ‘de-rugged about 20 majour headline stories’ – some of which may have appeared in the Mail/Sunday Mail/Standard, meaning the Standar themselves are hardly gonna slate their own stable-mates…!

  7. pickle said,

    July 29, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    The story is also reported in Saturday 19th Independant (page 7) by Cahal Milmo. Again this website is quoted as the source with no mention of The Guardian and largely a re-print of Ben’s article. Full article at news.independent.co.uk/media/article1202846.ece

  8. jackpt said,

    July 29, 2006 at 2:15 pm

    There is very little chance that any newspaper will mention a rival if they can get away with it.

    Art, there is something very similar in the differences between the Discovery US version of Mythbusters, and the UK version. I was quite disheartened to tune in to the Discovery UK version only to find the ‘build team’ (US version) called the ‘Junior Mythbusters’, and the overall tone of the narration far closer to Braniac.

    So it’s a little worse than the BBC dumbing down, they’ve dumbed down something that was already dumbed down. The sequence went something like this Entertainment (US) -> Dumber Entertainment -> BBC management that think all the unwashed hordes are interested in is football and the tabloids. Or something remarkably similar to that.

    Although I have something of a soft spot for Mythbusters, for all it’s faults its a show that hits a balance between entertainment and education that compliments both. I would far rather see young people watching Mythbusters than Braniac. Not once have I seen big-breated girls as part of a Mythbusters experiment. Also, the Mythbuster viewer shows are quite good, because they have re-tested myths on the basis of viewer input. Some of there previous results turned out to be wrong and they admitted it.

    So it’s not a bad thing that it’s on BBC 2. People with digital telly will want to watch it on the Discovery Channel.

  9. Robert Carnegie said,

    July 29, 2006 at 7:42 pm

    I want to say again, in Brainiac’s defence, that their scientific adviser apparently promised them that the bath would be blown up by the experiment and then it wasn’t. In filming a bath blowing up anyway… well, in their place I’d feel I was only getting my due…

  10. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 29, 2006 at 7:44 pm

    “I want to say again, in Brainiac’s defence, that their scientific adviser apparently promised them that the bath would be blown up by the experiment.”

    how do you know that?

  11. FlammableFlower said,

    July 29, 2006 at 10:05 pm

    Ben, with papers quoting you on Brainiac vs not mentioning Dr MRSA, at least if their readers do follow the link to the site, it may get them reading other posts and then they’ve accidently shown their readers their stories are a big pile of the proverbial.

  12. coracle said,

    July 30, 2006 at 11:26 am

    What really gets me is the use of ‘dumbed-down’. Dumb means mute not stupid.

  13. Robert Carnegie said,

    July 30, 2006 at 11:48 am

    Me and Ben:

    “I want to say again, in Brainiac’s defence, that their scientific adviser apparently promised them that the bath would be blown up by the experiment.”

    “how do you know that?”

    Isn’t it implied in www.badscience.net/?p=261 ? And the other bits which I can’t track down now?

    Hmm. I seem to have interpolated more than I realised. However… if your source wasn’t saying “This experiment will be good” or “This won’t work” or “I don’t know”, probably -before- they decided to spend the day filming it, then what were they all playing at?

    Have I also interpolated that your source is a science guy, just because on TV he’s called Doctor something? But he’s as much a doctor as David Tennant is?

    Oh, I’m bewildered.

  14. Janet W said,

    July 31, 2006 at 10:13 am

    Tom Pringle (a.k.a. “Dr Bunhead”) has a MSc and M Phil in Chemistry, but does not appear to have a PhD in same
    www.bunhead.com/html/about_bunhead.htm

    so.. not a “proper Doctor” as such, but definitely a proper science communicator, as enthusiastically reviewed by LabLit:

    www.lablit.com/article/45

    I do hope Dr G hasn’t lost him his job.

    I want to say, in Brainiac’s defence, that it did coin the phrase “You can never blow up too many caravans”.

  15. Janet W said,

    July 31, 2006 at 10:26 am

    (OK, sorry, bit tactless to make jokes about blowing things up at present. Sounded much funnier when I originally heard it)

  16. jackpt said,

    July 31, 2006 at 10:39 am

    Coracle, dumb hasn’t meant just mute for about one hundred years. I know this because I’ve looked it up.

  17. jimyojimbo said,

    August 1, 2006 at 11:33 am

    Ben G: Well, it’s probably a bit late now re: the ES etc, but what you should do is next time BadScience.net gets quoted as a source and readers of other publications get directed here, explicitly mention “the other stories listed on the right, including MSRA etc etc”. Point everyone arriving straight at that. That might get the newspapers’ goats!

  18. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 1, 2006 at 11:35 am

    i’m not sure i want to piss them off, i just think its funny…

  19. BorisTheChemist said,

    August 3, 2006 at 3:17 pm

    Dr Bunhead isn’t a real doctor, I see (I am suprised, he wears glasses and everything). I do believe that the only way to really get an MPhil in Chemistry (after doing an MSc and not at Cambridge) is to screw up your PhD or leave before you have finished it – that bodes well for his scientific credentials.

  20. BorisTheChemist said,

    August 3, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    For shame! I looked on the link and he did his MSc and MPhil in the same area as me! Looks like I am destined for a career as a circus charlatan.

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