Fish On The Radio

October 25th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, equazen, fish oil, onanism | 63 Comments »

Don’t plan your day around it or anything but there is a v v v big fish thing on Radio 4’s You And Yours tomorrow, 30 minutes, focussing on the shenanigans about the trial, no wait, initiative, no, study, we’re measuring, well, we’re, yes, hang on yes we’re measuring results, no, hang on… in Durham.

It should be pretty good, if I do say so myself.

Listen here:

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63 Responses

  1. Dr Aust said,

    October 25, 2006 at 9:24 pm

    Will await it with interest.

    “I don’t care how many fish in the sea…
    …Just don’t ever mention a fish to me”

    Louis Jordan “Saturday Night Fish Fry”

    Talking of fish, the BBC R4 show “More or less” on Monday talked about the statistical validity of the Aylesbury Prison supplements study – think this is

    Gesch CB et al.Br J Psychiatry. 2002 Jul;181:22-8.

    The programme is still up at:

    BTW, tomorrow (Thurs 26th) is also the day the House of Lords is supposed to be debating the changes to the homeopathic remedies (labelling / licencing) regulations.

  2. roymondo said,

    October 25, 2006 at 9:26 pm

    I thought it unlikely that R4 would be interviewing Marillion’s erstwhile frontman. Never mind.

    For those us with 9-5 UK jobs it’ll probably be available on the BBC’s online radio player wotsit.

  3. jimyojimbo said,

    October 25, 2006 at 10:54 pm

    Wait a minute. Is this implying Y&Y are doing a reasonably good serious feature on this? Well I’ll be…

  4. coracle said,

    October 26, 2006 at 8:49 am

    Dr Aust,

    I had no idea R4 had a show on statistics, my respect for R4 just grows and grows.

  5. Dr Aust said,

    October 26, 2006 at 11:29 am

    Coracle wrote: “I had no idea R4 had a show on statistics, my respect for R4 just grows and grows”

    Remarkable, isn’t it… R4 actually resembles…. gasp…. intelligent broadcasting. Informative programming…. not all pitched for idiots…. actual news….. thankfully LOW celebrity content…. every third show is NOT full of lame clips of other shows….

    It’s amazing that they’re allowed to put it out at all.

  6. DrHyde said,

    October 26, 2006 at 11:49 am

    Dr Aust – those nasty channels used by the common people have “shows”. Radio 4 has programmes.

  7. Fralen said,

    October 26, 2006 at 11:57 am

    Off sick today, I just heard it being mentioned before the 11:30 show and came here to post… Bad Science! Winifred Robinson said that the case for fish oil in heart disease had been “proven” but fish oil in children for intelligence was not. Surely there was a big Cochrane review all over the papers recently which said fish oil for heart was dubious?

  8. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 26, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    yeah well er i didnt have that much to do with the programme… the current cochrane review on heart is indeed dubious about the benefits, and although there have been some interesting crits of the meta-analysis (see eg BMJ rabid responses) i very much agree, its still very much pushing it to say “proven”, was v surprised to hear them say that.

    oh well, you can lead a horse to water etc. really interested to hear the full show now, sure it’ll be okay.

  9. Delster said,

    October 26, 2006 at 12:03 pm

    just as a quick comment. i’ve noticed flora i think it was are doing an omega-3 drink thing and pushing it on the heart health benefits

  10. jdc325 said,

    October 26, 2006 at 12:26 pm

    I saw something this week about Omega 3 in tinned spaghetti. Funny – when I was a nipper, I was always told not to play with my food.

  11. adamcreen said,

    October 26, 2006 at 12:42 pm

    It’s sounding good, Ben. The Geordie woman going on about “a wealth of anecdotal evidence” was hysterical. They obviously haven’t got a leg to stand on, and you’re sounding militant but measured.

  12. adamcreen said,

    October 26, 2006 at 12:53 pm

    Dave Ford saying “trial, um no I mean, initiative” and saying he was using the word “trial” in the “English” sense rather than the “scientific” sense!

    “Vexatious and foolish” – go Ben!

    “Discovery works on many different plateaus” says Equazen, claiming that scientists are prejudiced against ordinary people taking part in this “project” – because we’re all sitting in our chateaux wearing labcoats and monocles.

  13. Dr Justine Butler said,

    October 26, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    1 in 3 in the UK eat no fish, they do not represent a subclass of morons. If people are deficient in omega-3s then of course fish oil supplements will help, but not as much as eating properly in the first place would!

    Well done Ben – the voice of reason again!

  14. CDavis said,

    October 26, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    On the one hand – farking brilliant! The show really stuck it to the whole, er, ‘initiative’.

    On the more gloomy side, I can’t help thinking that the battle’s lost on this one: if the GCSE results for this group go up by just one point, there’s no doubt that Equazen will claim it, and the public will believe it. Then it’s triples all round in Durham.

    And the fact that scientists officially disapprove of the results will count for nothing except to prove what elitist stick-in-the-muds they are. Scientists will be seen as saying fish-oil doesn’t work, while Mrs. Normal will be proudly announcing that Jeremy got an ‘ology. QED.


  15. Dr Aust said,

    October 26, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    CDavis, you are even more pessimistic than me!

    Fralen, we discussed the fish oils / heart BMJ meta-analysis a bit on the previous fishy thread:

    …see e.g. post #51 and subsequent.

    On the You and Yours programme just broadcast, I thought it was facking excellent… nailed Ford and Portwood squarely.

    BTW, the programme demonstrated what a fine job Ben’s columns, and even us obsessives here, are making of doing the BBC’s research for them, as often I thought the reporter was practically quoting Ben or the blog responses.

    Could stand as a tribute the the kind of “viral marketing” idea of the blog – if we put the debunking out there, and people know where to find it, we CAN arm interested people with the facts …viral counter-measures against (e.g.) Durham-ist spin.

    Go BadScience.

  16. Dr Aust said,

    October 26, 2006 at 2:32 pm

    Anyone online NOW (2.25 pm) can see the House of Lords homeopathy debate live at:

    Unfortunately it may make you cross if you tune in now, as the Countess of Mar is defending the ludicrous homeopathy regs, giving her view that homeopathy works, is wonderful, saves the NHS money etc etc.


    She just mentioned “nanopharmacology” and “quantum theory”

    …expect “spallation” any moment….

  17. Dr Aust said,

    October 26, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    She has now been succeeded by Lord Turnberg, who is the former President of the Royal College of Physicians and ex-Dean and Professor of Medicine at the Univ of Manchester

  18. Dr Aust said,

    October 26, 2006 at 3:30 pm

    Lords debate was a bit of a damp squib, really. The MInister’s response amounted to:

    – previous Govts have taken a benign view of homeopathy, including on the NHS
    – the MHRA “doesn’t just deal with efficacy”
    – NICE shouldn’t look at homeopathic things because they are “too busy”

    Translation: the government doesn’t want to offend people (read: voters) who use homeopathic remedies (typically without having any idea what homeopathy means)…

    AND… if these new rules encourage a “consumer-led homeopathy industry” to make barrow-loads of money flogging said public garishly- and dishonestly-labelled sugar pills, what’s it to the government. All perfectly in accord with their vision of “customer choice-driven healthcare”.

  19. Dr Aust said,

    October 26, 2006 at 3:43 pm


    I have a wheeze… I think we should embrace the new “science controversy” O-level and ENCOURAGE schools to teach kids about homeopathy.

    I know this sounds a bit paradoxical, but bear with me…

    First, discussion requires an understanding of what homeopathy is. Cue recap of Avagadro’s number, dilutions, “so how many molecules of x are there in the tube?” etc. Top notch O-level Chemistry revision.

    Second, consider how this could be tested on humans. Cue discussion of how to do an experiment, placebo effect, sample sizes, “confounding effects” – scientific method laid out for all to see via a real problem.

    Third, consider: “how do the homeopaths claim homeopathic remedies work? Is it plausible?”

    Cue consideration of

    “water memory” – how would you work out if this was possible? (Ans – It is impossible, based on known water physics/chemistry)
    “spallation” – what does it really mean in physics… (Ans – not what homeopaths say)

    Summary, I reckon this would take some beating for an “enquiry-led” lesson / exercise showing how getting under the hood of the “debate” by looking into / using the real SCIENCE is the key to making sense of the homeopathy issue.

    Sorry about the thread hi-jacking….

    …that’s enough homeopathy.

    But as a general point, think we science types have to make more creative use of these “pubilc controversies” in education / public understanding as a chance to encourage people to get down to the real science and how it works.

  20. Delster said,

    October 26, 2006 at 4:28 pm

    Dr Aust,

    Unfortunatly that relies on science actually being taught properly. In previous threads here many people have stated they didn’t learn about scientific methodology until they went to university and some not even then.

    Thinking about homeopathy though does give me a good idea for a black mail plot….. prepare a solution of something poisonous (say strichnine) dilute to say 30c then threaten to drop it in the ocean where upon (according to homeopathic theory) all ocean life will be wiped out…. today the lab, tomorrow the world!!! (cue cackling laughter)

  21. amoebic vodka said,

    October 26, 2006 at 4:37 pm

    Our biology teacher covered that kind of thing in GCSE biology, but was very pushed for time to have a proper lesson on it because it’s not on the GCSE syllabus.

    The whole “mothers know best” thing was hilarious. Reminds us of Bill Bailey’s terrorism sketch (quote grabbed from the net so might not be entirely right):

    There’s this one celebrity, Rosie O’Donnell, a talk show host, and she said this: “I don’t know anything about Afghanistan, but I know it’s full of terrorists, speaking as a mother.”

    So what is this ’speaking as a mother’ then? Is it a euphemism for ‘talking out of my arse’? ‘Suspending rational thought for a moment’?

    As a rational human being, Al-Qaeda are a loose association of psychopathic zealots and disgruntled students who could be rounded up with a sustained police investigation. But speaking as a parent, they’re all eight foot tall, they’ve got lasers under their moustaches, a huge eye in their foreheads and the only way to kill them is to nuke every country that hasn’t sent us a Christmas card in the the last 20 years.

  22. Dr Aust said,

    October 26, 2006 at 5:46 pm

    jdc wrote: “Thinking about homeopathy though does give me a good idea for a blackmail plot….. prepare a solution of something poisonous (say strichnine) dilute to say 30c then threaten to drop it in the ocean where upon (according to homeopathic theory) all ocean life will be wiped out…. today the lab, tomorrow the world!!! (cue cackling laughter)…”

    Yes, another one to add to the Treasury of Homeopathic Gags. What was that one about the Homeopathic Parachute?

    Delster wrote: “Unfortunately….. In previous threads here many people have stated they didn’t learn about scientific methodology until they went to university and some not even then.”

    I hear you… but (at least as they tell it) this new “science controversies” O level is going to teach precisely that – or at least it should. I don’t see how you can teach “the controversy and debate” around scientific issues without the scientific method, or looking into / explaining the science. The comments on the threads do suggest that it has been perfectly possible in the last few yrs to learn basic physics / chemistry etc without explicitly making the link “does what I know about the basics of chemistry and how science is done shed light on this homeopathy business in the news”

    My own experience has been that most people with even a very basic grasp of scientific principles struggle to get their head round how homeopathy could work once confronted with the calculation of “less than a molecule of anything” IN TERMS THAT THEY CAN GRASP.

    Point is that the idea that if you dilute it and dilute it and dilute it you eventually end up with nothing is both correct AND intuitive. Sugar cubes, or money, make good examples.

    To truly believe that a remedy gets MORE potent the LESS it has in it requires you to be more than scientifically a bit naive or thoughtless – it requires a whole extra layer of homeopathic quantum spallation double-think, or religion as we sometimes refer to it.

  23. monstermunch said,

    October 27, 2006 at 2:44 am

    I couldn’t believe it when the spokesman actually said that mothers are probably better at assessing the medical benefits of fish-oil than a controlled study!

    At least the report gave a balanced view of issue. I find it difficult to understand why people (i.e. general members of the public) don’t see the problems with these fish-oil types of stories. Here, specifically: fish-oil initiatives sponsored by company X = lots of PR for X but zero useful scientific evidence = other schools and parents wanting pills from X. I hate to think of school/parents spending money that could go on school books, equipment etc. on pills that don’t work just because most people do not know how to evaluate scientific data properly.

    What I want to know is this: Is there anything more we do about this kind of situation? The lack of balanced reporting and critical assessment of research in the media means that news reports and websites like badscience are drowned out in a sea of misinformation.

    I try to inform my friends/family as much as I can to be more critical of certain types of stories like the fish-oil ones but my advice is frequently ignored or people fail to see the significance. For instance, I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with people about homeopathy where their responses go from “what do you mean it doesn’t work?” to “you mean my dad/friend/dog is lying about it working?” and finally to “so what if it is found to be a placebo?”. :-(

  24. ayupmeduck said,

    October 27, 2006 at 8:34 am

    An absolutely fantastic piece of reporting. Ben you are a hero, but this lady Catherine Carr (sp?) is not far behind on the (anecdotal) evidence of this report.

  25. Chris said,

    October 27, 2006 at 10:03 am

    The You and Yours reporter seemed to be asking all the right questions. Any evidence that the impetus for the programme came from the Bad Science commentary, Ben? If so, that would be interesting: it would mean that us sceptics (well, Ben in this case, actually) are actually starting to have an effect.

  26. Dr Aust said,

    October 27, 2006 at 10:30 am

    monstermunch and chris:

    All we can do is, er, keep putting out the information that it (homeopathy, fish oil, whatever) is over-sold / untried / useless… and keep at it.

    As the R4 piece shows, sometimes the message gets through. And Chris, the script for the programme sounded SO much like the Bad Sci columns (and threads) that I cannot believe the reporter had not read them very carefully.

    Sadly, the mainstream science organisations have not really cottoned on to the need for “rapid rebuttal” of pseudoscience nonsense – partly because they are terrified of looking elitist / paternalistic. “We scientists know best”. This is seen as such a no-no that people are wary of challenging the rubbish head-on.

    Sometimes they also worry about giving the rubbish “the oxygen of publicity”. I think this was an influential view in the MMR business. The health grandees decided “The MMR vaccine scare is so clearly wrong no-one will take it seriously and it will fade away”. By the time it became clear this wasn’t going to happen it was too late to repari the damage

    Another big problem two is that the major science organisations have been preoccupied for the last few years with the “why don’t kids do science GCSEs and A-levels any more” issue, which has monopolised most of their thinking in the pollicy sphere.

    I might see this last one as linked to the rise of pseudoscience, myself, because pseudoscience fosters an atmosphere in which the “scientific view” (e.g. of homeopathy) is seen as: (i) just another consumer choice; and (ii) dusty, nit-picking and anal-retentive. But in the current thinking “no-one does science GCSEs” and pseudo-science are not usually linked.

  27. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 27, 2006 at 10:35 am

    it was totally taken from Bad Science, they called up and said they wanted to do the story ages ago, and I chatted to them for about a million hours. i always encourage people to read the blog comments because on many threads, notably the fish oil and the brain gym ones, but any any others, the commentary is where the issues are crystallised.

    sometimes it’s a struggle. i think old media people are put off reading comment threads because of unfocused discussions where social software, that works well for a smallish shared community, has been deployed in very high traffic mainstream media environments, which it does not suit so well. commentisfree, for example, although fun, does deteriorate into “you’re a zionist/anti-semite/this writer should be sacked/typical guardian/always doing” etc within about half a page for most articles.

    Y&Y is quite a sound institution, and I’m totally up for them lifting stories (it’s how the media seems to work but i’m on a crusade so thats ok with me): having said that i did think the piece could have benefited from a read through from a sciencey person to make things like the trial explanations tighter for a lay audience.

    actually, just thinking about the commentaries, i know some people i run into seem to measure the popularity of an article by the number of comments but i’m not sure that’s true, often it reflects the contentiousness, the arrival of one troll, or the fact that there is factually more to say on a topic, which people discover and then post. a good, funny, contained, unambiguously correct article will generate minimal commentary.

  28. superburger said,

    October 27, 2006 at 10:36 am

    The bloke at the end’s appeal to ‘mother knows best’ made my stomach turn. As did his condescending attitude that people up in the grim North deserve the help of an affluent Londoner like himself.

    None of them have a pot to piss in when it comes to these trials.

    I guarantee exam results are going to improve in Durham this year though. All that attention from education psychologists, the general annual improvment in exam results, placebo effect making kids more confident blah blah blah.

  29. Delster said,

    October 27, 2006 at 11:38 am

    Dr Aust,

    at least give me credit for my own world domination schemes!

  30. Dr Aust said,

    October 27, 2006 at 11:50 am

    Superburger wrote: “The bloke at the end’s appeal to ‘mother knows best’ made my stomach turn”.

    That was Adam Kelliher, I guess, pulling unmelted pats of butter from his mouth.

    Of course, the mothers example rather exemplifies exactly why one needs blinded placebo trials.

    True statement; “Mothers are the people who observe children the closest.”

    No dispute there.

    So you could defend why you want to record their observations /views of their child’s development/progress.

    BUT… they are also the people most likely to think they see “pill-delendent changes” which they have imagined or in fact introduced themselves.

    Sort of a microcosm of the whole problem with “open label” trials on kids’ learning..

  31. Dr Aust said,

    October 27, 2006 at 11:57 am

    Re post 29: Sorry Delster, what had I appropriated? Apologies if so.

  32. ed26h said,

    October 27, 2006 at 12:39 pm

    This had been said once or twice, but what I, also, found particularly irksome about whatsisface was the way he smarmily appealed to that flattering, fashionable, quasi-postmodernist notion that “mums know how to raise their children better than scientists”. It’s as if they can somehow intuit whether fish oil is doing any good – that they can channel it from the Wiccan earth-mother or something.

  33. monstermunch said,

    October 27, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    I reckon this has been discussed before somewhere, but is there nothing extra any of us here can do to help the situation? By only writing comments on stories here, we’re effectively preaching to the converted.

    I think we need some kind of campaign, initiative, protesting, posters etc. to teach the public and newspapers not to be fooled by shoddy science. The main ideas that I think need to be taught are:

    1. A trail needs to have a “control”, in other words, two similar groups where one is given the special treatment and one is given no treatment.
    2. The placebo effect is such a powerful effect that not using a control group makes the study effectively useless.
    3. The placebo effect only works if you believe a treatment will work and, in general, it does not cure the underlying thing it is treating.
    4. Scientific data should be published, and hopefully replicated before it should be believed.

    From talking to people I know, the most common misunderstandings about these points have been:
    1. Most people do not know what “control group” means. Quite a few told me they know what it means and it means “controlling what’s goes on”. In other words, I think this word should be avoided as it is confusing.
    2&3. I’m generally not sure what the majority of people think a placebo is. Some seem to think that the belief that a treatment works actually does fix something (I’ve heard of cases where this is true to an extent, but in general it is not true). I found lots of people who don’t get angry by the prospect that they are being sold expensive placebos.
    4. Most people do not know what published (i.e. “reviewed by other scientists”) means. I don’t think people have a good grasp of the scientific method either and why experiments need to be repeated. I think most people might think that science is always right and can’t be argued with (e.g. these types of updates to stories are very very rare).

    The MMR jab scandal and the current homeopathy debate are two prime issues that I think exemplify the above. Isn’t the government concerned about this? Surely this science misinformation undermines the research money they give and reduces the number of new science students, which in turn will slow down scientific progress of the country.

  34. jdc325 said,

    October 27, 2006 at 1:43 pm

    Dr Aust – you seem to have inadvertently given me the credit for delster’s homeopoisoning scheme in post 20 {My own world domination schemes are vastly different to delster’s.}

  35. Dr Aust said,

    October 27, 2006 at 2:48 pm


    I agree with everything you say… but I think that in reality posting here is almost the only thing we CAN do… or rather “posting here, writing to the newspapers, writing to their readers’ editors, writing to MPs, supporting school science teachers at the grass roots in their endeavours to do it right, etc etc.”

    I share your frustrations because, even as a science pro with an interest in this kind of thing, it is immensely difficult to find a way to be heard or feel one is making a difference. Universities are now businesses, scince is expensive to do so everything in science is dominated by raising money, and apart from a few lobby groups like Sense About Science no-one seems to feel that rebutting nonsense is a justifiable end in itself, or rather “an end in itself worth investing hard cash in”.

    Put another way, if I could get a £ 100K grant to run a project employing a research assistant spending 3 yrs doing an academic study looking into why people believe nonsense, my Univ would be happy. If I spent all my time posting scientific explanations and rebuttals of codswallop to a web forum they would feel they were not getting value for money from what they pay me.

    I do try hard to project to what friends I have in the science power elite that combatting pseudoscience nonsense is actually one of the critical present-day science battles, and that we scientists and our professional organisations should all be doing more, but amid the everyday work struggles it is hard going.

    In the meantime, to end on a more positive note, I think that forums with some informed debate / comment on them, like this one, CAN do something, esp. when combined with a widely-read newspaper column written by a person of Dr Ben’s wit and erudition etc. etc. Like we said above, Ben and this site exposed the Durham trials to the light of scientific enquiry and the end result is the BBC piece, which hopefully will have spread the message wider. We just have to keep going and hope for more of the same.

  36. Kells said,

    October 27, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    I just heard the end of the programme.
    I thought that the reporter, Carr, was very good and did not stop at just once correcting the assertions of that PR man from Equizen – she continued to make the point that there were no results or conclusions to be had if no trial is carried out. Good on ya.

    The Equizen PR was classic – arguments like ‘mothers anecdotes are as good as scientific study’ and ‘scientists seem to want to keep scientific studies for themselves’ was the usual bull and bluster from someone who knows he’s in the wrong but knows he has a product to sell. At one point he said that it was altruism that led the company to give away the pills – what a f*ckin liberty (as Catherine Tate would say).

    I was also shocked to find that 3year old children were part of these trials – that seems very wrong. It’s like the old style aiming of cigarette ads at children. Get em hooked while their young.

  37. Dr Aust said,

    October 27, 2006 at 3:43 pm

    It wasn’t even a PR man, Kells – the Equazen mouthpiece you are talking about was CEO (and ex-journalist, BTW) Adam Kelliher.

  38. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 27, 2006 at 4:03 pm

    it’s a recurring question on all activist scenes: what can we do? i think that a strong sense of re-affirming compatriotism is quite an important part of all protest, and hanging out here and elsewhere with righteous nerds somehow makes it feel more concrete, and naturally spreads the message, and its importance, and motivates and reaffirms. also you pick up neat new ways of arguing for the next time you meet a fruitcake at a dinner party.

    also, without blowing my own, sending me stuff so i can put it in the column is a pretty good start, i often miss stories and people often assume i must read every paper every day: i try to, but some weeks i buy them but they just pile up…

    lastly, writing to newspapers, and tv stations, especially to peoples’ bosses, especially naming them, especially explaining what the problem is, can be surprisingly effective and creates a bit of hassle at least.

    i think maybe we should be a bit more quantitiatve about collecting data on who writes bad science stories, maybe thats the golden application for , i don’t know. there are a lot of repeat offenders, as sources, features writeres, and “news” writers. for example, pat whatshername, who has a book out on how were all being poisoned, was on today prog this morning talking about organophosphates making you obese, and she was, to my mind, misrepresenting the darbre armpit/breastcancer research recently too whilst plugging her book. i’ve only recently started spotting what repeat offenders they are.

    shall we try and come up with some other ideas, and then i’ll do a Bad Science Activists blog post?

  39. le canard noir said,

    October 27, 2006 at 5:55 pm

    Ben, I’m building up quite a database on the quackometer site of bad health stories that the quackometer has spotted in its twice daily trawls. More than happy to share that with you at any point. Analysis may be quite hard, but as a list of URLs of potential quackery in the daily papers (bar the independent – can’t get the automation to work on that site :-( ) I’m sure some fun could be had with it.
    Anyway, surprise birthday party for me now… better dash. At least, I hope it is a party…

  40. Dr Aust said,

    October 27, 2006 at 9:43 pm

    I would be a little wary of centring the BadScience Wiki “hall of infamy” on people, although if they have repeat form for Woo-nonsense it would be fair enough. But in some cases it would be better to have it topic-centred, methinks. Although if the people and the subjects can be linked, wikipedia, so much the better.
    So for fish oil thats….

    Madeline Portwood
    Dave Ford
    Adam Kelliher
    Jackie Stordy

    Of course none of these is a journalist.

    ..debating whether to include Felicity Lawrence. I didn’t find her justifications on the previous Fish-thread terribly convincing, and she does seem to have a bit of a bee in her bonnet about fish oil, but she has written some sensible things previously about the food industry. It just makes me wonder why she has got the FishOil bug so badly.

    A journalist who DOES have repeat offender Woo form is Dr Danny Penman, who writes for the Mail. On his personal website at:

    …he describes his usual repertoire as “animal welfare, science, technology, health and the paranormal”. A piece of his that raised some ire on the Forums recently was:

    “Could spiritual healing actually work” (Mail Oct 3rd)

    But other recent Penmania, accesible via his website or the Mail, includes

    “Have Scientists Discovered a Way of Peering Into the Future?” and “Miracle or Madness?” – you get the general idea.

    I think the Blakc Duck’s quackometer gave Dr P a top quack rating. Dr Danny has a real PhD in fungal biochemistry so he should know the difference between evidence and bollocks. Of course, bollocks probably pays better.

  41. coracle said,

    October 27, 2006 at 9:53 pm

    clinical trials = hardline view, excellent! So many great quotes!

  42. Dr Aust said,

    October 27, 2006 at 9:55 pm

    And for my last post of the evening: if you want to read Le Canard Noir’s deconstruction of Dr Danny and the spiritual healing piece, it is at:

    Quack quack…

  43. pv said,

    October 27, 2006 at 11:14 pm

    “mums know how to raise their children better than scientists”

    As far as I know, in the real world, many scientists are parents and some mums are scientists. Just not in his world, where science and scientists are inconvenient and should be trashed to make way for marketing and scams to exploit school kids.
    If one were being brutally honest here one would have to say he’s really anti-science.

  44. monstermunch said,

    October 28, 2006 at 1:12 am

    This is not so much quackery but silly reporting; it made me laugh anyway. :-),23599,20642299-13762,00.html

    Maths theory bags lotto jackpot

    MOST of us believe winning lotto is down to the luck of the draw.
    But a syndicate of university professors and tutors in Britain thought it could also be related to the principles of mathematical probability.

    And their theory was spectacularly vindicated this week when they matched all six numbers and scooped the $13 million lotto jackpot.

    The syndicate, made up of 17 staff members at Bradford University and College, bagged the big prize by using two boxes, 49 pieces of paper and a large amount of brainpower.

    But it was far from an overnight success.

    Syndicate leader Barry Waterhouse, 41, who works at the design and printing section of the university, explained that the syndicate had been doing the National Lottery for eight years without conspicuous success after it started in 1994 with each member picking his or her own line.

    “We just weren’t winning with the numbers being picked that way, so we thought of a different method which would mean all 49 numbers would be used,’ Mr Waterhouse said.

    The syndicate then set up a computer program to check the numbers every week.

    It took four years and a total outlay of $8700, but on Saturday, the formula succeeded.

    Matching the winning numbers and the bonus ball, they hit the jackpot.

    “We just thought that if all the numbers are in use, we must have a good chance of winning and it has proved so, though you never really think it will happen to you, “Mr Waterhouse said.

    Fellow syndicate member David Firth, 63, said: “We have won tenners and the odd 70 quid in the past, but now this is the big one.”

  45. monstermunch said,

    October 28, 2006 at 1:53 am

    The problem I have is that nobody I talk to seems to realise the harm in all these bad science reports we’re subjected to. People I talk to inevitably ask things like “Who cares if fish oil works or not?”, “If someone wants to use homeopathy, why should you care?” etc.

    Take homeopathy as an example. I’m sure you all know, but it’s based on:
    * Like cures like (e.g. use caffeine for sleeping pills!)
    * The more dilute, the more powerful (just like alcohol and asprin then..?)
    * Water remembers what has been in it (is sea water the cure to everything then?)

    Not only do the three principles of it go again basic medical and scientific knowledge, they go against common sense! I know that relying on common sense is a fallacy (e.g. “I can’t feel the earth moving so it can’t be”), but you would think people would not be fooled by something so insane. Then we have several proper clinical trials that prove homeopathy just doesn’t work and still people use it. If people are suseptible to this, think of all the other ways they can be conned. As an extreme example, a teenage America cancer patient recently won a court battle to use an unproven herbal remedy (i.e. it doesn’t work), instead of chemotherapy (which had an 80% chance of working):

    Now the government seems to think it’s OK for everyone to use homeopathy even though it is beyond doubt that it doesn’t work. Surely they have a duty to protect the public from frauders (e.g. if I tried to sell a time machine I could be prosecuted for false advertising)?

    I’m probably just ranting now, but after a century of amazing medical, technological and scientific discoveries, it feels like we’re receding back to the age of witch burning and superstition and nobody cares but a minority.

    I’ve been trying to think of things that activists could do but most have problems:
    * organise some big publicity stunt to protest (like a march with banners) against poor science reporting; sounds a bit silly and I’m not sure it would get much coverage.
    * create some very concise and easy to understand “how to spot bad science and medical trials” leaflets/posters. I’m not sure how you could deliver these to people in an effective way so that they won’t be chucked as junk mail.
    * stick up posters next to herbal/acupuncture etc. therapy shops warning of their unproven nature; possible legal problems.
    * set up a mailing list for us all to help us write letters of complaint to offenders. For instance, if Ben finds a bad science article, he posts it on the mailing list along with several email and letter addresses of who to complain to. Everyone on the list then sends a short complaint by email and copy by post for each posting. I think this would actually be highly effective by post; imagine the Daily Mail received a couple of hundred letters every time they have a spiritual healing article.

  46. Dr Aust said,

    October 28, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    Like the idea of the forum or similar becoming a Bad Sci Action Group letter-writing farm, MonsterMunch.

    “Now the government seems to think it’s OK for everyone to use homeopathy even though it is beyond doubt that it doesn’t work. Surely they have a duty to protect the public from frauders (e.g. if I tried to sell a time machine I could be prosecuted for false advertising)?”

    They take refuge in the lawyerly use of words – all the packaging says (officially) is “has been used in the homeopathic treatment of…” So they exempt them from “false claims”, although it is a total weasel since the net result will be misleading most customers.

    A puzzle – first, since classical homeopathy CLAIMS only to work as a “personalized remedy” concocted for a particular patient, over-the-counter non-personalized homeopathy is not homeopathy as defined by the witchdoctors themselves. So why are the homeopaths all so pro OTC homeopathic remedies? After all, according to their own belief system, they can’t work.

    I’m hoping the dietary supplement manufacturers sue the homeopathic remedy makers under Trades Descriptions, myself. One of the fascinating things about the quasi-medicines health supplements industry, as Ben covered a month or two back, is that the Mfrs take each OTHER to court – e.g. the Robert Winston-endorsed omega-3 loaded “smart milk” was taken off the market after ANOTHER omega-3 seller claimed it didn’t have enough omega-3 in it “to be effective”. Bizarre but true.

    The Government’s attitude does stink, no doubt about it. They have simply decided to regard homeopathy as a “health consumer choice” issue. If it is all paid for privately, fair enough, perhaps, but having it used on the NHS is a complete joke… UNLESS it can be clearly shown to save the system money, relative to conventional treatment of the same patient group, while delivering an equally good clinical outcome.

  47. ed26h said,

    October 28, 2006 at 1:48 pm

    Funny you should mention that Lotto story, monstermunch, I wrote about it on my blog yesterday and came here with the intention of mentioning it.

  48. ed26h said,

    October 28, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    Kells: Very true, generally, but:

    I was also shocked to find that 3year old children were part of these trials – that seems very wrong. It’s like the old style aiming of cigarette ads at children. Get em hooked while their young.

    I suspect you’re simply referring to “brand imprinting”, but I’d be wary of drawing that kind of analogy – it’s not like fish oil is addictive.

  49. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 28, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    it’s not addictive, but I do agree that the most corrosive aspects of this case is how it sells children the notion early in life that they need to take pills. that is probably the most effective and sinister feature of the whole caboodle.

  50. BobP said,

    October 28, 2006 at 9:31 pm

    I note that despite the many statements in the program that it is now an “initiative” not a “trial”, wht webstie hasn’t changed – yet. And doesn’t exist!

  51. Neil Desperandum said,

    October 29, 2006 at 11:57 am

    As a head of science at an English secondary school maybe I can add a few comments to some earlier posts.

    post 26
    GCSE science is compulsory in England and Wales (along with Maths and English), so GCSE numbers aren’t declining. However, science A-level numbers are certainly declining, and the Government and learned societies are worried about that.

    The boring nature of the current GCSE specifications have been identified as the main problem, so the GCSE science course has been changed to make it more relevant to more pupils, more engaging and hopefully more interesting, so more students will be encouraged to continue to A-level. We started teaching the new science GCSEs this autumn.

    A big feature of the new GCSEs is “How Science Works”, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Contrary to suggestions in posts 19-21, the nature of scienvctific enquiry has been a large part of school science for at least 15 years. Even Primary school pupils now understand the concenpt of a “fair test”. But How Science Works is now even more important, with the express aim of training pupils to be consumers of science (rather than practitioners, which only a few will be). In other words to spot Bad Science when they see it.

    As part of How Science Works we now have to teach reliability, validity, replicates, means, range, various kinds of error, accuracy, precision, correlations and causal relations, control groups, placebos, evaluations, the societal aspects of evidence, authority, political and other bias, and more.

    So I think science education in the UK is moving in the right direction and many of the issues raised in the Bad Science discussions are being addressed. Of course we’ll have to wait a few years to see if it makes any difference…

    So this also suggests another thing professional scientists can do (post 33): Produce materials/ideas/data for science teachers to use in their lessons. The new GCSE textbooks are quite good (and the one we use has a nice page on MMR compltely demolishing Wakefiled), but we can always use up to date and accurate stories. I’ve used the Durham fish story in my lessons, but for the majority of teachers who don’t follow Bad Science religously, a teacher and pupil-friendly resource could be very useful. Stories that make people look foolish are likely to be winners with pupils.

    If anyone does have the time and inclination, I suggest contacting the Association for Science Education (www., which is the body that represents science teachers in the UK. They already produce many resources and may be keen to collaborate on/host some Bad Science teachering stuff.

  52. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 29, 2006 at 12:07 pm

    hi neil, that’s the coolest blog nick i’ve ever seen.

    should have publicised it more and will do now that you’ve reminded me, but i did do some bad science teaching resources with NESTA a while ago:

    could you give me the name of the sci textbook that has a page on wakefield? or even email/fax a photocopy if you had a mo. would be great to see.

  53. Andrew Clegg said,

    October 31, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Re those teaching aids, I wish he’d had things like that when I was a kid. Not for my own benefit (naturally) but because the world would surely be a saner place if people grew up a bit more critical.


  54. jjbp said,

    November 4, 2006 at 10:43 am

    There is a HEFCE funded initiative out there called “Chemistry for our future” which is looking to push the concept of careers in chemistry through providing materials, uni/lab visits, experiments, or anything that excites teenage minds. It’s all run by the Royal Society for Chemistry with the help of universities, and from the inside of this scheme I can say it is sufficiently well funded to make an impact, I reckon, given the right ideas. A previous post on one of the Bad Science fish oil threads mentioned the scheme’s North East launch event in that den of iniquity, Durham. I didnt notice anyone canvassing teachers about the fish oil debate but then again I was sort of busy expecially when the venue got worried about how dangerous the demos were (NB venue: a Science Learning Centre, theme of demos: “this isnt too dangerous for schools”, demonstrators: university chemistry lecturers). Anyway, if there is someone out there who would like to design a chemistry-based school kids activity which shows the importance of controls, experimental design and the like, then it should be eminently possible to offer it to schools in the Durham area… which sounds vaguely subversive or necessary depending on your viewpoint.

  55. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 5, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    Come to think, I was raised on Haliborange vitamin C tablets, and look at me now. Oh dear.

  56. Noah Quiescence said,

    November 5, 2006 at 6:42 pm


    how could I possibly hope to begin to express the gut-churning disgust and anger I feel as a parent under the obtuse tons of pressure from every corner to continue to purchase expensive fish oil supplements for my son (who must have one of the most clear-cut cases of ADHD ever seen). I am so angry.

    I approached the whole issue ages ago with as scientific a mindset as my “Research Methods In Psychology” module at Uni allowed. I did a lot of research on the net. I studied the composition of the various brands available and their respective claims. I calculated the necessary dose according to my son’s weight (as suggested) and spent twice as much on the three months recommended period to “build up the levels” and bigged the capsules up with my son no end.

    I know that the claim that mothers know best (I cannot face to listen to the R4 programme myself: sorry, I am sick to the back teeth of this whole business) has incensed some posters, but in the absence of scientific trials, please indulge me and my close observation of my child: the fish oils have never made any difference whatsoever in my child’s symptoms. However, there has been a significant effect on my finances.

    The hysteria is such that – paradoxically – the placebo effect is taking place in the adults my son has been in contact with. Their simply surreal claims, after being told that he has been taking the supplements, that he is “better” on the strength of a few minutes or hours spent with him just make me feel like hitting them with a heavy frying pan.

    Let me tell you straight, and from the frontline: if you are not seen by teachers etc. as giving your children fish oils, you are made to feel that you are practically abusing them and it has become virtually compulsory.

    And so I continue to shell out on something (not Equazem, mind – I despise everything about them – but I have found an equally expensive and “pure” product from a competitor, and feel slightly less dirty) that I know to be worthless and irrelevant.

    I am minded to tell my scientifically-minded (it may have been all our experiments, and growing things, and dissecting sharks’ heads and lambs’ testicles) and rather sophisticated 11-year-old ithat it is in fact a huge con but that we have to play the game until the craze is over and that he must be patient and continue to swallow the emperor’s new capsules.

    And don’t get me started on diet and Adhd….

    Ben, you are magnificent, utterly priceless and completely indispensable: when I wake up in the middle of the night with all sorts of undesirable thoughts, I creep downstairs and reconnect with my sanity through your work.

  57. Delster said,

    November 10, 2006 at 12:29 pm

    Neil, Post 51

    “But How Science Works is now even more important, with the express aim of training pupils to be consumers of science (rather than practitioners, which only a few will be). In other words to spot Bad Science when they see it.”

    I think a better aim would be to train them all to be capable of being practitioners even if they don’t end up going into it full time. Surely it’s better to aim for the highest possible level of knowledge rather than having the aim of making them slightly more critical “comsumers” of (insert subject here).

    Don’t get me wrong, i know it’s not you setting the new course standards, but surely we should aim higher?

    I also disagree with teaching a general GCSE science rather than individual subjects such as biology, chemistry & physics.

    I did a combined science subject before going on to make my choices for the old O level exams and it gave me a taster for the various subjects meaning i could make a better choice of subject. I feel that teaching general science at a young age would lead more kid’s into taking a specific subject at GCSE level.

    I ended up with all 3 subjects at both O level and Scottish Higher level (kind of the old A levels) but had a distinct preference for Biology after i’d done general science. This lead me to make it my first choice.

  58. Delster said,

    November 10, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    Just to clarify a point above, by giving the option of specific subject GCSEs you give an incentive to the person who loves biology but hates physics & vice versa to actually go on and study the subject they enjoy & possibly have apptitude in.

  59. Neil Desperandum said,

    November 11, 2006 at 9:43 pm


    To take your points in reverse order.

    I may have been unclear in my first post about GCSE. Science is a compulsory subject throughout compulsory schooling in England and Wales (i.e up to age 16). In secondary schools that usually means biology, chemistry and physics lessons, though there are different teaching models in different schools and due to a lack of specialists physics may not be taught by a physicist.

    The national science tests at age 14 (the SAT) is a “science” exam, but has questions on biology, chemistry, physics and scientific enquiry. There is more flexibility at GCSE, but all exams cover biology, chemistry and physics, and you usually do separate papers in these subjects. It is illegal to give one of the subjects up (so you can’t do say biology and chemistry only).

    Personally I’m not a fan of this, and I think the three science subjects should be separate and not all compulsory (like in Scotland). I think this would raise the status of each subject and give pupils more choice.

    On your first point.

    In the latest review leading to the current GCSEs, teachers, scientists and industrialists were all consulted and were pretty unanimous that teaching everyone to be a science practitioner was wrong. The “traditional” content was irrelevant and uninteresting to most pupils. What everyone wanted instead was pupils who could think and who thought science was interesting and relevant.

    This is not a lower aim. Quite the reverse. Knowledge is easy; critical thinking is hard. A famous recent article, in I think the Mail, compared a current exam question about an experimental design with an old O-level question about the Kidney. The Kidney question was supposed to be harder, but was in fact straight factual recall, while the modern question was more challenging, requiring greater thinking skills.

  60. Delster said,

    November 13, 2006 at 1:38 pm


    We’re coming at the same thing from differing angles here.

    That last paragraph re the exam question. In my view a practicioner of science would be the one that would need to know about experimental design.

    Also the Mail (if it was them), with that question, were comparing systems against items which is not a valid comparison. I did my O & A levels over 20 years ago and we had experimental design questions too. I dare say that modern papers, esp in subjects like biology, will have questions requiring basic factual recall.

    When you said above that it’s ilegal to give up one of the subjects, was that untill age 14 or age 16….. ?

    And we’re agreed that they should be seperate subjects…. let them concentrate on the subjects they like and or have aptitude for.

  61. Neil Desperandum said,

    November 13, 2006 at 9:39 pm

    Age 16.

    Sorry for the confusion in terminology – this has come from the government ;). A practitioner of science means someone who’s going to study science at university, or “do” science professionally. A “consumer” is everyone else, who won’t need the equation for photosynthesis but should know what a kilojoule or a placebo is.

  62. Delster said,

    November 14, 2006 at 10:59 am

    at age 16 i was sitting O Level exams in Physics and Chemistry and had (briefly) dropped biology to concentrate on other subjects. It’s crazy that they are forcing subjects at that age still.

    Mind you don;t get me onto the phonetic way of teaching reading!!

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