Who’s The Daddy?

July 22nd, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, brainiac, very basic science | 22 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday July 22, 2006
The Guardian

Like any other reactionary old fart in his early thirties there’s nothing I find more life affirming than internet scare stories, ideally involving terrorists and paedophiles using Napster to destroy the British music industry, which is why I am so pleased to have one of my own: Theodore Gray, the man who managed to score over a kilo and a half of pure sodium metal off Ebay.

Now at school you probably dropped a crumb of sodium into some water, or rather, you watched your chemistry teacher do it, and the sodium reacted with the water to produce sodium hydroxide (nasty alkali) and some hydrogen gas. The reaction gave off lots of heat, which ignited the hydrogen, which made the little lump of sodium fizz around with a nice flame in a way that seemed implausibly dangerous for a fingernail of metal dropped into a small bowl of water.

Theodore Gray, like a total hero, got some friends over, with refreshments, and set about launching a kilo of sodium into his private lake.

The reasoning was as follows: as long as a fair amount of hydrochloric acid was sloshed in afterwards (“Muriatic acid at any hardware store”), then this would neutralise the sodium hydroxide, leaving only some slightly salty water behind. And there’s no law against making slightly salty water, is there, officer?

This isn’t quite how it worked out. There was an initial large explosion from the first chunk he chucked in, and then a series of secondary explosions caused by one fairly large wedge that was literally hopping across the lake. It was thrown 40 feet up into the air, then flew into the water at high speed, only to be thrown back out into the air by the resulting explosion. It only takes a few of these skips to get several hundred feet in a few seconds. The partygoers were 200 feet away (you can see the video at qurl.com/boom).

Now you might be asking: where’s the bad science here? Well the story is, this groovy scientist with a white beard craps all over the fakesters at Brainiac, Sky’s popular flagship science program which has just started its new series. Last week I accused them of faking content. In particular they had a bath blown up with caesium and rubidium, big brothers of sodium, and I said it was faked. They hedged, and then said: “We love big bangs and sometimes we’ll make an explosion bigger than we need to just because it’s fun but we always tell our viewers.” They couldn’t confirm if these experiments were faked. They couldn’t confirm if viewers were told if they were faked. The process of journalism is pretty boring to write about, but let’s just say, they worked hard to make me very nervous indeed about running with the story.

Now they’ve admitted that they definitely were faked. And they have also admitted that viewers were not told (remember: “but we always tell our viewers”). And they have admitted that they fake other stuff. In fact they were so blasé about this that at one point they were even going to give me a list of other examples, but now they’ve changed their mind about that.

And here is where it gets really elaborate: they don’t tell you explicitly that they fake stuff, but you are a fool not to assume that they fake their experiments. “The clue is in the title of the show, ‘Brainiac Science Abuse’, it’s an entertainment program, it’s being made for an entertainment channel, it’s to be expected from the show.”

Furthermore, on this program that trades on how reckless and crrrazy and dangerous it is, they now say that when things really are dangerous, they just fake them. And the undignified wriggling goes on. Brainiac claim they said “this is what happens if you stick rubidium in a bath” and then showed “a demonstration of what would happen.” (The clip and a full transcript are available at badsience.net, and they are very explicit that they are doing it for real). Give it up, seriously, put your hands up. “We may as well have done it” they say: an interesting approach to the scientific method. But of course they did do it: one of the scientists on Brainiac did drop these metals in a bath (a pretty easily replicated methodology), on camera, and unfortunately they didn’t blow the bath up, so it got canned. That’s life. How do they know that this “not exploding” was somehow “wrong” and the fake explosions they broadcast instead were what “should” have happened, without trying it?

Despite the fakery, of course, Brainiac gets massive ratings, and is praised in very high places for popularising science. So to me, this is a lot like the nutritionist question: is it okay to lie to people about science, if it makes them eat vegetables? But more than that, it’s a question of who do you want to be your mate: Fakeboy with his weak plastic explosions; or Theodore Gray, who buys a kilo of sodium on the internet, and gets some friends over for a party to chuck it in the lake?


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22 Responses



  1. JonathanS said,

    July 22, 2006 at 8:04 am

    Oh, that’s interesting – I wondered why you pulled your punches in your column last week. Intimidation from Sky, huh?

    To be honest, I think it’s *more* honest of them to confess that Brainiac is an entertainment show pure and simple, and that throws responsibility back onto us the viewers to take it lightly and not as anything resembling factual science. As I said to you on the phone at some point, what really worried me in all this wasn’t Brainiac, it was people at the IoP and Royal Society who’d casually mentioned what a terrific science show they thought it was. When the professionals don’t think it through, what hope the layman?

    Oh, and you know that Theodore Gray is the co-founder of Wolfram Research, writers of Mathematica? He’s a chemist – his site is worth a look not just for his sodium party, but for his periodic table too. Literally a table. With elements. www.theodoregray.com/

  2. AitchJay said,

    July 22, 2006 at 8:38 am

    Kilo of sodium please!

  3. jaffa_cake said,

    July 22, 2006 at 10:36 am

    Doesn’t anyone remember the Open University programme where they dumped a series of alkali metals into water? I can’t remember how many they did, but the last one blew up the tank of water quite successfully.

  4. JohnD said,

    July 22, 2006 at 12:53 pm

    Just shows, even grown up people can behave like kids. Silly kids.

    How did you find the site, Ben?
    His ‘party page’ includes some most dubious looking ads:
    www.thefinchleyclinic.com/shop/oxygenelementsplus-p-10.html selling “Oxygen Elements Plus is a liquid Oxygen supplement “. Presumably Hydrogen peroxide.

    And

    “Cesium Chloride Therapy ( www.essense-of-life.com/info/cesium.htm )
    Kill cancer cells with high body ph Find information and research here. ”

    I seem to remember you writing about the oxygen scam – the Cesium one looks much more unpleasant in that it is pitched at people with cancer. Even though the site warns to consult your doctor, the science quoted is awfully (fills me with awe) bad:

    “Cesium Chloride is one of the most alkaline elements. Otto Warburg won a Nobel prize for showing that cancer thrives in anaerobic (without oxygen), or acidic, conditions. Research by Keith Brewer, PhD and H.E. Sartori has shown that raising the pH, or oxygen content, range of a cell to 8.0 creates a deadly environment for cancer. ”
    Have you inveighed against this?

    John

  5. Talisker said,

    July 22, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    John — the ads are by Google Ads (Gooooogle… whatever) so I doubt that Gray has any control over what they show. They’re just things that a text-processing algorithm has decided are relevant to the content of Gray’s site. Unfortunately this includes a lot of scam artists who happen to be using chemistry terminology.

  6. Nurn said,

    July 22, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Please tell me that the guys on the Discovery Channel, Mythbusters, are not up to the same fakery!!?? They do seem like true nerds, though, so I’m hoping…

  7. Robert Carnegie said,

    July 23, 2006 at 12:12 pm

    I think you have some control over Google adverts. A technology news site’s coverage of the Asian tsunami was decorated with adverts for surfing and scuba gear until I dropped them an e-mail, then it stopped.

    Casual dishonesty in the media worries me. For instance, you may recall a fuss over – was it John Prescott, in the late 1990s? – pictured in a bar with wine bottles in the foreground, which, it turned out, were painted in in place of beer bottles – or something like that. But more alarming to me is when the principle of elegant page composition, where IIRC posed human figures are supposed to face into the centre of the page, is applied to people carrying protest banners: a digitally produced newspaper’s photo editor will just flip a picture around and then flip the words to match. If it’s done for something as insignificant as that, then there really is no barrier to gross dishonesty as well.

    As far as Brainiac Science Abuse goes, if they’re making cartoons of science experiments then that’s one thing, but they should be more clearly marked as cartoons. But if they’re leading people to believe – as you normally would when you aren’t watching fiction – that a television camera was pointed at a real thing happening, that’s cheating.

    Maybe they should go like “[u]Mystery Science Theater 3000[/u]” and set it on a space station, so that you can see they’re pretending, or have the Teletubbies present it. “Ooh! Big bang!” “The Teletubbies love to blow things up very much!”

  8. superburger said,

    July 23, 2006 at 3:49 pm

    If braniacs was a ‘serious’ science programme, they could have shown the failed experiments, and pointed out the reasons why it might have failed (and told how science comes up with hypotheses, designs experiments to test them, then refines hypotheses based on results from these experiments)

    Havnig shown how not to make Cs explode, they could have then gone on to repeat the catapult experiment shown in in the tinyurl post.

    That would be educational, and pretty entertaining (plenty of suspens when it doesn’t blow, followed by a climatic finale)

  9. Pish-Tush! said,

    July 23, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    Very Nice!
    No one seems to have cited Oliver Sacks’ “Uncle Tungsten” in which he claims to have thrown 3LB of Sodium into Highgate ponds with the assistance of Jonathan Miller. I have difficulty in believing that schoolboys could buy that sort of thing even in the 1940s. In Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table” he talks of igniting Potassium after using it in place of Sodium to distil Benzene to a truly anhydrous state. There was some left in the apparatus when he washed up and that set everything alight!

  10. Dr Aust said,

    July 23, 2006 at 7:29 pm

    The two health-bollocks sites JohnD mentioned gave me a laugh. As a recovering chemistry grad and a lab researcher of (inter alia) both cellular pH homeostasis and free radical action, I dialled them up for a look-see.

    The idea of CsCl as a therapy … is there ANYONE crazy enough to waste money on this kind of thing? The scientist behind the theory that they mention, A Keith Brewer (1893-1986) existed, but I rather think we’d have heard, in the 20 yrs since his death, if alkalinizing cells cured cancer. ..And, if anything, acidifying them would be more likely to do them harm. However, an exhasutive search on Medline revealed one recent paper in a proper journal dosing rats with prostate-derived implanted tumours with CsCl, so doubtless that will soon be cited in the “Caseium therapy” advertising literature to help snare the unwary and desperate.

    The Finchley Clinic / “Oxygen Elements Plus is a liquid Oxygen supplement ” site is even more mind-boggling. I tried to see if they said what was actually in this concoction and found:

    “Oxygen Elements Plus is a liquid Oxygen supplement also containing digestive enzymes, metabolic enzymes, 21 amino acids and 77 trace minerals.”

    www.thefinchleyclinic.co.uk/nojavascript/products/Oxygen_Elements_What.htm

    - which left me little the wiser as to how this, quote, “floods your body with oxygen”

    Although I WAS left thinking:

    Hmmm… take large quantities of a mixture of amino-acids… mix with a supermarket-type multivitamins-and-minerals formula… add a bit of “antioxidant cocktail”… plus some trypsin and amylase… mix well…. then bottle and sell to incredible idiots at a price sufficient to make myself a nice little wedge. Lovely.

    The site also explains that:

    “…for SERIOUS ILLNESS, it needs to be taken IN MUCH HIGHER THAN STANDARD DOSES, in which case we strongly reccomend (sic) buying several bottles at a time”

    They also give some testimonials from satisfied customers:

    www.thefinchleyclinic.co.uk/nojavascript/products/Oxygen_Elements_Plus_testimonials.htm

    ..from which I learnt that it works on dogs as well as humans.

    Incidentally,it is pleasing to find that “Oxygen Elements Plus comes with a 60 day money back guarantee from the manufacturers”. Wonder if anyone ever asks for a refund?

  11. Filias Cupio said,

    July 24, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    “Cesium Chloride is one of the most alkaline elements. Otto Warburg won a Nobel prize for showing that cancer thrives in anaerobic (without oxygen), or acidic, conditions. Research by Keith Brewer, PhD and H.E. Sartori has shown that raising the pH, or oxygen content, range of a cell to 8.0 creates a deadly environment for cancer. ”

    Cesium Chloride contains cesium. What happens if you add cesium to water? You get cesium hydroxide. What is a significant property of CsOH? It is alkaline. What is something that alkali can do? It can kill cells. What is a type of cell? Cancer cells. Therefore taking cesium chloride orally kills cancer cells. And if a lady weighs the same as a duck, she must be a witch.

    The science would be a bit stronger if they used arsenic chloride instead – it doesn’t take much of that to kill a cancer.

  12. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 25, 2006 at 9:02 am

    [coughs]

    i’ve just put my new accusations of other faked items on brainiac to sky, and instead of getting back to me on whether they are faked or not, as they they have been saying they would do for a week, they now are now refusing to comment on any of them. i think that’s a rather extraordinary thing.

    they say this:

    Hi Ben

    This is our statement for your use in connection with any column you may wish to write on this matter. There will be no further comment.

    “Brainiac: Science Abuse is a fun, light-hearted entertainment show. If you’re expecting to see the Open University – you’re on the wrong channel! We make science fun! That said, it is possible to learn while having fun and we do always ensure that all of the methodology and theory in the show is absolutely correct. First and foremost we’re in the business of making people laugh, entertaining them and, having consulted with real grown up scientists, we can assure viewers that the science behind the stunts is factually correct. We’re known for our love of big explosions, our fans love them too and when we add a little something to create a bigger bang everyone’s in on the joke.”

  13. Martin said,

    July 25, 2006 at 11:08 am

    There is a series coming out on the National Geographic channel called “I Didn’t Know That”. From the press blurb it sounds just like Brainiac, but knowing the National Geographic channel, and having met one of the presenters (albeit once) I’m expecting it to be a little more like the excellent Mythbusters mentioned above.

    Unfortunately, I dont get the National Geographic channel so I won’t be able to see it. However, it’s starting on Thursday 7th September 9pm and they’ve filmed 10 episodes.

  14. guthrie said,

    July 25, 2006 at 11:54 am

    As far as I cam concerned, if they are using fireworks and stuff to make something look more spectacular, and not telling people, thats lying.
    can you see it in real science?
    “Oh well, you know my actual yield was only 20%, so I added some salt, which looks like what I was making, so everyone could see what it would look like. Its not my fault that they thought I had a much higher yield.”

  15. flip said,

    July 26, 2006 at 1:20 am

    With respect to the google ads- I can assure you, as a long-time friend of Theo’s, that the ads featuring their own forms of bullshittery have absolutely no relation to him. Not his style, I promise you.

  16. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 26, 2006 at 1:26 am

    i had hilarious googleads here for a while, they were advertising all the things i was taking the piss out of, but then googleads banned me. they wouldnt tell me why either, and looking at their list the only thing i could think might apply to me was “encouraging people to click on the ads” which i once did in the forum: someone was hassling me for “misleading the public because they might think i endorse the homeopaths advertised” and i said something along the lines of… you know… anyone stupid enough to think that i endorse a particular homeopath deserves to lose their money, click for you life.

  17. Big_Les said,

    July 26, 2006 at 9:01 am

    I have to say that I’m seriously disappointed re Brainiac’s faking. For me, it’s not good enough to claim (“it’s TV moron, don’t take it seriously) because without qualification of what’s being shown, people WILL assume that what’s happening is a) factually correct, and b) really happening. And why shouldn’t they?

    I certainly wouldn’t know when they were faking; I’m a Humanities Graduate. Now, their spin-off “History Abuse” *does* fall into my area of professional interest, and I can tell you that it’s utter rubbish too. In fact I’ve emailed them to complain about a story presented as “unbelievable, but TRUE!!!” by a re-enactor type they have on it.

    Wait for it… a dog firing a cannon at approaching French cavalry at an C18th battle.. as far as I can tell, having checked both the literature and the web, the only source for this anecdote is this:

    digital.test.lib.msu.edu/collections/index.cfm?action=view&TitleID=63&Format=gif&DivisionNumber=4

    Michigan State University, who hold this collection of no doubt thoroughly researched historical works, tell me that there are no bibliographic references in the comic whatever, and that it was quite common, especially during wartime, for this comic to just pull stories out of its bottom that would help the war effort in any way.

    There are countless other factual errors made in that series, but then again as far as I can tell History Abuse didn’t make it past one series.

    I don’t care if they’re bringing Science/History/whatever academic subject “to the masses”, if they’re misrepresenting it like this, to me it’s a case of “with friends like these, who needs enemies”?

  18. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 26, 2006 at 1:48 pm

    heh, Theodore Gray says:

    “Every time there’s a news report or major blog posting of my sodium party page, I get another sodium story or two to add to my collection of guest stories (all listed on my party page).

    “You will be pleased to know that the two I have received in the aftermath of your column last Saturday were two of the best, and quite unusually were written in proper English with complete sentences and a minimum of misspellings. I can only conclude that your readers are a cut above.”

    Theo

  19. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 26, 2006 at 2:16 pm

    The two new ones are:

    theodoregray.com/PeriodicTable/Stories/011.2/Robin.html
    theodoregray.com/PeriodicTable/Stories/011.2/Anon2.html

  20. guthrie said,

    July 26, 2006 at 3:09 pm

    Big Les-
    “In fact I’ve emailed them to complain about a story presented as “unbelievable, but TRUE!!!” by a re-enactor type they have on it.”

    What re-enactor type? I do reenacting myself, and am always interested in finding out who not to trust.

  21. alexabaracaia said,

    July 27, 2006 at 9:12 am

    Big Les -

    I’d v much like to know more about your complaint to Sky. Am researching a news story on Brainiac and History Abuse and all info gratefully received.
    You can get in touch with me at alexa.baracaia@standard.co.uk

    Thanks!

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