The year in bad science

December 30th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 41 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday December 30, 2006
The Guardian

The funny thing is, now that I’m in a symbiotic relationship with the bullshit industry, I’d be stuffed if they all went straight. Although in 2006 there was no sign of it happening just yet. It was a particularly good year for anyone wanting to make money shovelling dodgy science into the innocent minds of young schoolchildren. The ludicrously pseudoscientific Brain Gym” programme is still being peddled in hundreds if not thousands of state schools (although from the ever joyful Bad Science postbag it sounds like Brain Gym “tutors” are at least getting some good-quality heckling from science teachers these days).

The Dore programme’s expensive “cure” for dyslexia and the dismal trial published on it in the journal Dyslexia eventually prompted five resignations from that journal’s editorial board (did I mention that the trial author received money from Dore?), and the epic story of the Durham fish oil “trials” has reached as far as the comic Viz, which certainly made my Christmas. Children of the nation, ignore your teachers and parents: it is not necessary to take pills every day to lead a healthy life. There will be something very special on the Durham fish oil “trials” in 2007, believe me.

Meanwhile, we caught Sky’s flagship science show, Brainiac, red-handed faking experiments, which was only funny because they make such a melodramatic fuss about how incredibly daring they are for doing lots of dangerous “experiments” “for real”. It was testament to the geeky readership of Bad Science that within a week of the story I’d been sent videos of some guy in America casually doing, for real, in his own back garden, the very stuff that Brainiac had been unable to do. Even better was an instruction video for schoolteachers showing how to do an experiment in class that Brainiac crowed was too dangerous to do in class (and then faked anyway).

And what a great year for scares. The Times reported on its front page that cocaine use among schoolchildren had doubled when it had done nothing of the sort (they simply misinterpreted the report). The media’s anti-MMR campaign continued unabated as the Telegraph, Mail and Times all reported on unpublished research claiming to show a link between the vaccine and autism, even though the research was from a man with a history of making such claims as far back as 2002, which he still hasn’t published. Over the year, at least two fully published studies showing a negative result for almost the exact same experiment were inexplicably ignored by all newspapers.

Similarly, large-scale published studies showing no link between mercury fillings and health problems were ignored – yesterday’s scare perhaps – because fatigue, dizziness, headaches, aching joints and more are now being blamed on wi-fi, mobile phones and “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” instead (despite 31 published studies showing no relationship). There was even a Tamiflu vaccine scare (although Tamiflu’s not a vaccine).

In the meantime every newspaper was filled with meaningless corporate-sponsored “science” stories like Bravo TV’s London School of Economics “Evolution Report” (“all men will have big willies” as the Sun said), because PR agencies know news editors are powerless to resist a silly science story and the story will always run with the sponsoring company’s name attached. Ker-ching.

It’s also been a great year for complementary medicine. Magical magnetic bandages are available through the NHS Prescription Pricing Authority, although they don’t work better than a placebo, and the MHRA, the healthcare regulator, has allowed herbal remedy and homeopathy companies to make health claims on their packaging without evidence for efficacy. I ranted about this on New Year’s Eve 2005, but then eight months later in August the great and the good in science were queueing up with letters to everyone to say it was a disgrace that these measures had been dumped on parliament in a hurry and rushed through. Perhaps some people assume the stuff in this column is so bad that I must just fabricate it.

Meanwhile, the nutritionism industry raked it in unabated, antioxidant pills still didn’t do anything for you, and the Daily Mail continued sifting through every last inanimate object in the world to divine whether it either causes, or cures, cancer. There were bonkers smoking treatments, ludicrous cosmetics claims (mostly involving “oxygen”), postmodernist drongos complaining that evidence-based medicine is fascism, and one postmodernist drongo who acted like he’d done swanky experiments on brain chemistry for his big Agatha Christie programme on ITV when he very simply hadn’t.

And somehow we managed to sneak rambling explanations of publication bias, the need for clinical trial registers, medicalisation, the viciously complicated “prosecutor’s fallacy” in Sir Roy Meadow’s “one in 73m” courtroom statistic and a long and frankly very dreary disquisition on the counterintuitive maths behind positive predictive values in tests for rare events in relation to psychiatric violence on to the news pages of a national newspaper. I should be paying you. And that’s all just for starters. Next week, business as usual.

bad.science@guardian.co.uk


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41 Responses



  1. monstermunch said,

    December 30, 2006 at 4:54 am

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year Ben! During the last few months, columns such as yours have really opened my eyes to the bad science and misinformation that most people don’t give a second thought about. I now have a healthy dose of skepticism about any new information I come across and try to inform people I know about some of the rubbish they might encounter. Keep up the good work. :-)

  2. JunkkMale said,

    December 30, 2006 at 8:14 am

    Keep ‘em coming!

    It is a rare treat to see such deserving bubbles burst (I was going to add with pricks usually on the inside) with humour and wit. Sort of an iron fist inside a multi-striped, open- fingered wooly mitten.

    The only shame is that so many that should not continue after such exposure still do, and how so few who one would imagine are tasked to take note have the talent, energy, commitment, passion and plain balls to do doing anything substantive to put htings right. Perhaps it’s becuase it can take more than the span of a few headlines. So they just sail on in their ratings-worshiping, target-meeting, agenda-driven, vote-catching, index-linked, gold-plated ways, and concern themselves more with feeding off hype rather than seeing the long-term damage it does.

    If you’d ever like to turn your attentions to the world of the environment, I’d suggest there are rich pickings already, with more to come. There’s money to be made in them thar ‘green’ hills. But not everyone seems to be too concerned with the scientific facts in separating those who are sincere from theirs, in the name of saving the planet. From governments down (or up, depending on your views).

    Anyway, a Happy New Year to you!

  3. Dr Aust said,

    December 30, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    Congrats on another good year’s windmill-tilting debunking, Ben.

    Re. the MHRA homeopathy thing, having been a small part of the scientific societies’ response, I agree that it was way too late. Although, having said that, it was at least good to see them saying unequivocal and public things about what a bunch of bullshit it was. By contrast, the medical establishment and the British Medical Association were stunningly silent.

    There is a good point, though, in that the scientific community lacks a mechanism for “horizon-scanning” for these kinds of issues… and also lacks a rapid concerted response mechanism for crap science that hits the media, to the great detriment of public understanding.

    I’ve occasionally tried persuading those of the scientific and medical Great and Good of Science that I come across professionally that the biz needs some kind of “rapid rebuttal” operation to issue cogent authoritative scientifically-argued debunking press statements to short-circuit things like (e.g.) The Fish Trials, or MMR… .And an operation like that could even take on a bit of earty-warning horizon-scanning…

    But something like that costs money, if you want to do it in an organised way.

    The problem is that professional scientists are all so busy doing all the other things the job entails that they don’t have the time, or at least, they don’t see it as a priority. And their employers equally feel they pay them to do their core work, not trash nutritionism, or homeopathy, or whatever.

    So there is a bit of a power vacuum in the anti-bad-science arena. Perhaps groups like Sense About Science and Newton’s Apple will tackle this, but there is just so much pseudobollocks around, and it gets so much credulous coverage, that us debunkers will always be a bit outgunned.

  4. scentless_apprentice said,

    December 30, 2006 at 1:40 pm

    Ben…

    Bravo on your work.

    As for this…

    “There is a good point, though, in that the scientific community lacks a mechanism for “horizon-scanning” for these kinds of issues… and also lacks a rapid concerted response mechanism for crap science that hits the media, to the great detriment of public understanding.”

    In additioning to your reasons for this happening, you’ve also got to remember that at the end of the day, quackery and the like makes newspapers sell.

    People will always be looking out for the magic cure to what ever, and if the newspapers give the slightest inkling that the cure is on the horizon – pseudo-scientific or otherwise – then the masses will lap it up.

    As for your rapid response – where’s it going to come from?

  5. BobP said,

    December 30, 2006 at 1:44 pm

    Symbiosis? They would die if you went away? Sorry, mate.
    But I’ve enjoyed this year, so keep it up!

  6. Dr Aust said,

    December 30, 2006 at 1:53 pm

    scentless:

    What I sometimes try to sell to the science Great ‘n’ Good – without success so far, sadly – is that the scientific learned societies should set up and pay for a specific “rapid rebuttal” unit.

    As various stories tackled on the blog and the Bad Sci forum show, it is not THAT hard – in this era of internet and online full-access science journals – to find the background info that shows quackery stories are founded on rubbish science, or to formulate a reasonably clear explanation of why – which is what Ben is doing. But there aren’t enough people doing this, the people who do do it are basically enthusiastic freelancers, and all the while the “authoritative” voice of the scientific societies is typically silent.

    Of course, even if one had a set-up like this, that wouldn’t per se persuade journalists to quote it. But it could hardly be worse than what we’ve been getting.

    For instance, think of Ben’s expose on the late Dr Malywotsit and his back-garden “guaranteed MRSA detecting” operation. The Society of Clinical Microbiology or whatever finally got around to issuing strongly-worded itemized debunking, but only after about the tenth story based on Chris Malywotsit’s worthless tests. How much better would it have been if they had done it after the first couple? At least it would provide ammo for one journalist to read the story and then write, instead of a copycat one, a counter story on “Daily Grot knowlingly fixed story about MRSA by employing bogus scientist”

  7. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 30, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    “Symbiosis? They would die if you went away?”

    fair point. i’m parasitising them.

  8. SciencePunk said,

    December 30, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    Happy New Year Ben! A great year for debunking, yes. SciencePunk also owes its inception to you, so you can tuck that under your belt.

    Here’s to another year of bursting bubbles. This might be a good place to start.

  9. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 30, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    A parasite indeed, and good for you. However, a distinction probably should be drawn between duffers of journalists who just don’t understand science, and hucksters who make a living by making noises that sound like science – more Bullshit Science than Bad Science. For that matter, when the media run a merely incompetent story that should have been checked and wasn’t, they too fall into the huckster camp – they’re wilfully practising bad science in their business.

    In an ideal world you would not be an avenger of Bullshit Science in business, politics, etc., because there would not be any. You would only be a bogeyman to frighten children with – if you don’t memorise the Periodic Table then Dr Goldacre will come and take you away to a special school where there isn’t any brain gym or water to drink…

    I wonder if it’s beneath your attention that all weather is now caused by CO2 emissions? Well – I exaggerate. Going by Google News, no one seems to have tied Heathrow’s fog to being caused by CO2 – but a few have pointed out that there may have been less CO2 emitted because of the fog. (However, I worry about planes stacking, just buzzing in a circle burning fuel – doesn’t that imply that we should have larger airports, more runways, for the same number of planes?)

  10. profnick said,

    December 30, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    I still reckon this is a good bet for 2007, (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/07/25/nhanky25.xml)
    Kleenex have refused my request for details of the tests they carried out or the results, claiming that they’re “commercial in confidence”. Since they can’t even get the names of the viruses right, ( magnificently misspelt on every box), it does make you wonder about the claims.

  11. Ken Zetie said,

    December 30, 2006 at 6:14 pm

    Surely this is the time of year to revisit and debunk ‘detoxing’?

    It occured to me today, as I gave my eyes a break from putting bits of curved plastic directly on them and instead settled for a bit of curved glass a cm or son in front, that there are two areas where complementary ‘medicine’ has made no inroads:

    opthamology and dentistry

    In both cases it is presumably because there is no placebo effect of a piece of plain glass to sure myopia or eating a massively diluted hole to cure a filling. The problems you go to an opitcian with (and a dentist) are nearly all straigthforward to cure and there’s no mumbo-jumbo about it. One to comtemplate anyway.

    Of course if the CAM crowd idd get in on the act it would be a disaster for the rare but extremely nasty things that dentists and opthamologists do pick up, such as mouth cancers, diabetes/high blood pressure and even multiple sclerosis (as a friend of mine found when her blurriness in one eye was recognised as the onset of MS).

    Ken

  12. raygirvan said,

    December 30, 2006 at 6:30 pm

    that there are two areas where complementary ‘medicine’ has made no inroads: opthamology and dentistry

    I wouldn’t be too sure of that. With the former, the Bates Method and its relatives haven’t died the death yet: admittedly you don’t run into it via opticians. With dentistry, however, you could easily run into mercury paranoia, holistic dentistry (dentistry integrated with woo), TMJ, etc.

  13. RedSevenOne said,

    December 30, 2006 at 8:13 pm

    Far be it for me to add be a spoiler and add one more example of Bad Science to the mix. But first a comment on Brain Gym and its close cousin Mind Gym. I encountered both of these programs within the last year and when I applied my own Tree Rule of Assessment to them – 1] Look for what is there that should not be – 2] Look for what is not there that should be – 3] Leave your bias/agenda on a peg at the door: ended up blowing the Third Rule and rolling in laughter on the floor [New addition to the system Eh Wot].
    The example of Bad Science I would like to add is the promotion of the use of fMRI’s as a predictive assessment tool in forensics and evidence in the Criminal Justice System. Having successfully destroyed the DSM-IV as such a tool, if it become necessary to go after the fMRI, it shall be done.

  14. AitchJay said,

    December 31, 2006 at 7:25 am

    An example to add to Ray (#10), a Dentist I used to do work for fits the mould..

    www.wellness.com.au/Home/HealthEffects/EnergyMedicine/tabid/122/Default.aspx

    Wellness Water, who could live without it?

  15. Bob O'H said,

    December 31, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    Well, you have been busy! Thanks for another year of entertainment, and have a good new year.

    And a happy new year to everyone else as well!

    Bob
    P.S. Isn’t wellness water just water that has been raised up from an aquifer in bucket?

  16. Dr Aust said,

    December 31, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    Wellness water is a new one on me. You couldn’t make it up…

    The amalgam filling scare / yank out / replace industry is definitely dentistry-related badsci-bollocks. I used to hear about this a lot in the States because I worked in an NIH Dental Research Institute. Anyway, it made my dentist-researcher friends very angry. As I understand the evidence, bashing the fillings about with a drill to yank them out gives you a far bigger dose of mercury than just leaving them in, so it is clearly scare-balls practised on the ignorant to make money.

    Ophthalmology hadn’t entirely escaped BadScience either. Remember Prof Nathan Efron and his beer goggles (threads passim)?

    news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4468884.stm

  17. TimW said,

    December 31, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    Re: Wellness Water, how much sh*te is it possible to cram into three sentences?…

    “One of the most important articles of recent times appeared in the June 2000 issue of The Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients.

    “In this highly respected medical journal Professor Serge Jurasunas details his experience with the far-infrared emitting mineral, SGES Tenko-Seki.

    “Far-infrared rays have been successfully studied and analysed. Among several studies, those of 4-14 micron wavelength (Tenko-Seki) demonstrated remarkable efficacy in treating various disease, and thus are a part of quantum medicine.”

  18. Twm said,

    December 31, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    Oh yes the beer goggles. What a magnificent formula. Though i always maintained that the effect should be measured in units of “fingerfulls of Vaseline smeared on glass in front of the camera lens” like the old b/w movies.

    I’ve had a good year, I successfully diagnosed my entire family and everyone I know as Type 1 or Type 2 bipolar sufferers using this indispensable questionnaire.
    psychcentral.com/quizzes/bipolarquiz.htm

    Apparently “People who have answered similarly to you typically qualify for a diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder and have sought professional treatment for this disorder”. I’m hoping that cornflakes will be fortified with Prozac soon.

    I’m going to have afish finger sandwich and champagne with friends. Don’t watch Jools holland hootenany, since it’s pre-recorded months ago and the countdown to midnight is falsified.

  19. Dr Aust said,

    December 31, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    Classic questionnaire, Twm. Do you suppose there is anyone that doesn’t meet the criteria?

    “At times I have been much more interested in sex than usual.”

    “Yes. It’s called “puberty”.”

    Or: “Yes. Every time I down the fourth pint of lager” (most British men).

    …I think you mean lithium-fortified cornflakes, though.

  20. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 31, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Belated recollection on weather. About ten years ago (Wikipedia says 199!7-98), all the weather in the world was because of El Nino. Remember? And now it’s anthropogenic.

    Having said that, a Wikipedia writer says “There is some debate as to whether global warming increases the intensity and/or frequency of El Niño episodes.” So you can have it both ways! :-)

    I think anthropogenic climate change is a real issue, and it’s probably better if too much bad weather is blamed on it, than too little.

    Any weather you don’t like or didn’t expect is bad news.

    And a late Reader’s Bad Science Award provisionally to the organisers of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay party who, I understand, declared earlier today that it was “definitely on” despite the poor weather outlook, but have now decided it’s off. It’s the “definitely on” that bothers me, but it may have been misreported, or, frankly, misheard. To fellow readers in Scotland, may your chimney stay up tonight.

  21. donkey-odie said,

    December 31, 2006 at 11:56 pm

    Re: 17 and weather:

    Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.

  22. Twm said,

    January 1, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    @17 Dr Aust: I think it’s more akin to a Turin test. It should be renamed to “are you human?”

  23. prescience said,

    January 1, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    Ben,

    If you didn’t exist, you’d have to be invented.

    Thanks for 2006, and looking forward to more cr*picide in 2007.

  24. Melissa said,

    January 2, 2007 at 12:41 am

    Happy New Year to all!

    Also, I’m sure you saw this already, but:

    www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-2524335,00.html

    Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas! ;)

  25. Teek said,

    January 3, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    many thanks for a cracking years’ debunking Ben – here’s hoping 2007 is full of more of the same!!

    oh, and good luck for the book – when can we expect for it to start flying off the shelves…?

  26. AitchJay said,

    January 3, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    You know, I think I was still drinking when I read this article the first time Ben, it’s great!

    Happy new year to you and yours – may T-shirts fill your partner with babies – or something..

    Cheers!

    Sorry it’s late.

  27. Ken Zetie said,

    January 3, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    There is hope:
    www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,172-2528494,00.html
    A new group, Sense About Science, is trying to get celebrities to stop putting their name to scientific nonsense. They have a website:
    www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/

    The article even lists everyone’s favourite Gillian McKeith.

    Happy New Year

  28. bootboy said,

    January 3, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    “A new group, Sense About Science, is trying to get celebrities to stop putting their name to scientific nonsense. They have a website:
    www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/

    Not new and not much hope, in my opinion anyway. It’s a terribly good idea to apply the very same sceptical mind frame to groups that purport to promote a disinterested rationalism as to the obvious snake-oil salespeople. In this case, there is worryingly little information on their site about how the trust works – who makes the decisions and how, who appointed the board, who provides the dosh. To find out that stuff you have to look in places like this: www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Sense_about_Science and this: www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1102753,00.html

    A tiny amount of digging shows that this particular outfit (founded 2002 btw) has the grubby pawprints of the fantastically dodgy RCP/LM/IoI/Spiked sect all over it. Although they are a clever lot, they are bonkers on a very deep level (I know a few people who were on the fringes of the RCP in the 80′s) and probably about the least trustworthy folk that the earth has yet seen. People who migrate en masse from revolutionary communism to right wing individualism without breaking their stride aren’t normally very genuine in their beliefs and normally have hidden agendas (which are often as simple as “I want to be noticed” and “I’d like some money”).

    It’s always worth remembering that, while promoting themselves as being purely motivated by scientific rationalism, they have conducted a fairly long running campaign, using fairly unpleasantly low tactics, to ridicule climate scientists who support the notion of human-driven global warming. Meanwhile, of course, they are happy to accept corporate funding. For example, have a look around spiked online and note the fact that they variously describe environmentalism as a “sect” and a “cult” – just utterly ridiculous terms to apply to what is, by any measure, a broad and loose movement, particularly by people who trumpet their own scientific rationalism.

  29. Dr Aust said,

    January 3, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    We have been round this one before on the forums.

    Sense About Science are a long way from Spiked and the Living Marxism crew, and to elide them in this way is pure conspiracy theory. I have had some dealings with Sense About Science over the homeopathy business and they seem fundamentally sound to me. The money to run the show has to come from somewhere, of course, but then you can’t run a charity easily on just tin-rattling unless you’re the British Heart Foundation or Cancer Research.

    I have no great knowledge of Spiked Online, although I have heard the mutterings about its origins in Living Marxism.. All I can say is that while I don’t buy everything on Spiked Online, some of what it runs strikes me as interesting and often sensible – Michael Fitzpatrick may be an ex-RCP member, but he has writen by miles some of the best reportage and commentary on the MMR vaccine / autism business. Have a look and judge for yourself.

    And the critique of Sense About Science advanced by Sourcewatch basically comes down to “everyone has some sort of vested interest so we must mistrust them all”. How very postmodern.

    For the record, as far as I can see Sense About Science’s vested interest is that it would be better for people to put their faith in evidence-based science, and evidence-based advice, than in cults, woo, snake-oil and celebs selling you nonsense. If that’s a vested interest, then as a professional scientist I plead guilty to having one too.

  30. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 3, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    I’m not wild about the Sunday Times or any other Sunday as a paper of record. It’s interesting, though. There was that Horizon show, or was it Panorama, about how Wakefield is selling dodgy autism cures-excuse-me-therapies now.

  31. apothecary said,

    January 4, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    Re 26 – I really can’t see what your problem with Sense about Science is. The SourceWatch site seems not to like them because they are (allegedly) pro-GM.
    I like the way that SaS’s links with the Royal Society are put across as at best neutral and at worst as implying some sort of Establishment connivance ! And if you look at SaS’s list of donors and council members it’s clearly supported by eg MRC and professional bodies (including my own RPSGB). Of course such bodies are not infallible, but they give it a good provenance for me. A quick skip through SaS’s website and its comments on detox products, pandemic flu/H5N1 virus, homoeopathy and CAM seem pretty sensible to me. I’m guilty as charged like Dr Aust (27 last para)

    Detox products – surely there’s some Badscience material there Ben – even if you’ve covered it before. Mundus vult decipii, to quote SaS quoting someone quoting some Roman geezer.

  32. bootboy said,

    January 4, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    “We have been round this one before on the forums.”

    I apologise, I’m new here. I hope I’m not repeating anything, but I’ll explain my reasoning in full. Nothing postmodern about it either.

    “to elide them in this way is pure conspiracy theory”

    I’m not eliding them, although I do think there is a plausible case for a conspiracy of sorts, a conspiracy where a relatively small group of people, acting in a reasonably coordinated way with a common agenda, exert undue influence on wider circles. Such ‘conspiracies’ are a completely ordinary and accepted fact of our society – they are a mainstay of the alternative health movement and the PR industry to give but two examples (think of all their ‘independent’ think tanks and the way that they routinely hide their underlying allegiances and present themselves as concerned independent experts). .

    Leninism, and particularly it’s offspring Trotskyism, is pretty much the politics of conspiracy. Have a look at some of Trotsky’s writings – on popular fronts, the crisis of leadership, the transitional demands and pretty much everything else he wrote, not to mention Lenin’s ‘trade union consciousness’ and the history of the bolsheviks, particularly their relationship with the soviets in the 1918-22 period.

    The strategy of many trotskyists essentially involves disguising their politics and inveigling themselves into positions of influence where they can act as a coordinated ‘hidden hand’ in guiding the decisions of much bigger and broader organisations. If you take a close look at many of the larger leftist campaigns in the UK in recent years (e.g. Stop the war, Anti-Nazi League, globalise resistance, Respect, UK social forum) you will eventually learn that the major decisions of these organisations are all made by the leadership of the SWP. They use a wide variety of techniques for exercising and disguising their influence – from packing meetings, to rigging agendas, monopolising key organisational roles, slates of hand-picked candidates for committees and so on.

    The whole point of their front strategy though, is that you need to attract a whole load more people to the front than would otherwise join the party. To acheive this you have to invite lots of independent people to sit on committees and boards – “useful idiots” was Lenin’s typically forthright moniker for such people. The whole strategy depends on the key insight that it is easy for coordinated groups with shared agendas to dominate much, much bigger uncoordinated groups. It can be broken down into two distinct approaches – entryism, where your small coordinated group infiltrates an existing organisation and attempts to take it over from inside (c.f. militant within the Labour party in the 70s/80s) and popular fronts – where you form a seemingly broad alliance on a particular issue (war, globalisation, environmentalism, whatever) but do so in such a way as to ensure that key decisions will be made by the party.

    Now, knowing all this about trotskyism, and having had the misfortune to have encountered it repeatedly over the last 20 years in political life, I have an astonishing amount of distrust for anybody and anything coming from a trotskyist organisational background.

    In this particular case, when we’re dealing with the RCP, all of these strategies can be seen in practice.

    * They repeatedly attempted both entryism and setting up popular fronts [1]
    * They were a ludicrously disciplined bunch, with a dress code and even martial arts courses for members.
    * They operated in a culture of secrecy to avoid imagined security service surveillance which involved all of them adopting multiple pseudonyms.
    * They were always considered to be just totally weird by anybody who ever encountered them in practice – many people consider them a cult.

    So, in this case, we have a group with a theoretical commitment to conspiracies, a practical history of engaging in exactly such conspiracies and one with an unparalleled level of discipline.

    I certainly think that it’s worth considering the possibility of continuing conspiratorial behaviour in such circumstances. However, considering the fact that they also

    * Underwent a political odyssey which took them from the authoritarian left to the libertarian right without any splits or the whole thing falling apart. Certainly unprecedented and probably impossible for a genuine political group to do.
    * Went through a process of moving their political organisation into the background over the move from RCP -> Living Marxism -> LM -> Spiked, despite the fact that there was obviously a unified decision making system throughout (if there wasn’t how did they make the decisions without losing members?) and with the same cast of leading lights throughout.
    * Regardless of whether they still form a coherent organisation, they undoubtedly closely share an ideology and have a very long and extensive history of working incredibly intimately together in coordinated and tightly controlled campaigns. Even without an existing organisation, I’d assume that such attributes would allow them to exert enormous influence on broader bodies of independents.

    So, to sum it all up, I view the RCP/IoI/LM/Spiked group with an enormous amount of suspicion. This is compounded by the fact that their responses to such claims made in the past have struck me as singularly unimpressive – they normally cry “McCarthyism” and claim that they are being persecuted for their past communism (when they are actually being questioned over their current actions). This is the very same response that I have heard again and again from trots when you try to expose their tomfoolery. Stand up at a Stop the war coalition meeting and say “the last six speakers, scattered strategically around the room and all agreeing with each other, were all members of the SWP” – you’d get exactly the same dishonest response.

    “I have no great knowledge of Spiked Online, although I have heard the mutterings about its origins in Living Marxism.. All I can say is that while I don’t buy everything on Spiked Online, some of what it runs strikes me as interesting and often sensible – Michael Fitzpatrick may be an ex-RCP member, but he has writen by miles some of the best reportage and commentary on the MMR vaccine / autism business. Have a look and judge for yourself.”

    I also like some of their arguments. However, they mix the good with the awfully one-eyed and my big problem is that they present it all as a pure product of rationalism. I particularly dislike their polemic style and their propensity for adopting inaccurate generalisations against all who disagree with them. As an example, have a look at Fitzpatrick’s review of “The God Delusion” [2]

    It actually reads like, say, a review by the sparticist league of a pamphlet by the International Bolsheviks.

    “While the author correctly identifies the working class as the revolutionary force, his ahistorical ignorance fails to see that the soviet union was a deformed workers state”

    See this from Fitzpatrick:

    “When he seeks to explain the terrorist outrages of 9/11 and 7/7 in terms of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ he obscures the more important determinants of these events in the ideology of multiculturalism (part of the liberal consensus regarded by Dawkins as the pinnacle of evolutionary progress).”

    He “obscures” my pet theory which is almost infinitely eccentric.

    And this:

    “In his comments on Catholicism, Dawkins reveals a combination of old-fashioned Protestant anti-Popery with the fashionable contempt of the liberal intelligentsia for any kind of religious faith. Thus he refers to the ‘semi-permanent state of morbid guilt suffered by a Roman Catholic possessed of normal human frailty and less than normal intelligence’ (p167). Discussing the consequences of clerical sexual abuse in Ireland, he suggests that ‘horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place’ (p317). These are statements of such unmitigated prejudice – and indeed absurdity – that it is shocking to find them in a serious book by a reputable author”

    He doesn’t say why and it certainly isn’t obvious that such views are absurd or obviously prejudiced – in Ireland the idea that catholicism burdens people with a lot of harmful and pointless guilt would certainly not be considered absurd or prejudiced, even to those that might disagree.

    And how about this:

    “Dawkins’ patrician scorn for all forms of religion leads him to miss the essential point. Religious faith cannot be dismissed as a manifestation (or as a cause) of psychopathology or stupidity. Religion, in Marx’s words, is ‘the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality’ (2). It is ‘the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not found himself or has already lost himself again’. In a world in which human beings are estranged from themselves and from others and lack control over their own destiny, they seek refuge and consolation in the worship of divine forces. Religion provides a distraction, an alibi, an evasion, an abdication of responsibility. The persistence of religion poses a range of specific historical and political questions which Dawkins’ resolutely ahistorical approach does not even begin to answer.”

    Another case of “The idiot misses the most important point – my pet theory.” Although in this case, he gives us a poetic quote from Marx, to back up his assertions.

    Then finally, and inevitably, he has a go at “environmentalism” (whatever he means by that)

    “While Dawkins can readily identify common features between South Pacific cargo cults and the Christian churches, he seems oblivious to the religious themes of the environmental movement. Just like evangelical Christians, environmentalists preach a ‘repent, the end is nigh’ message. The movement has its own John the Baptist – George Monbiot – who has come out of the desert (well, Oxfordshire) to warn us of the imminent danger of hellfire (in the form of global warming) if we do not repent and embrace his doctrines of austerity and restraint (3). Beware – the rough beast of the apocalypse is slouching towards Bethlehem to be born!”

    Which is just bonkers really. He’s having a go at Dawkins for not having a go at his pet hate in a book on a completely unrelated topic. Not only that, but his attack on environmentalism as a religion is absurd – does anybody actually consider Monbiot a prophet? I seriously doubt it. It’s just a very silly way to debate.

    If you look at any of the rest of his stuff it’s chock a block full of the same sort of overblown rhetoric, straw man arguments and just thouroughly ideological (and a very eccentric ideology at that). For example, you can find him declaring that “As the smoker has become a pariah, sufferers from lung cancer have become the lepers of the twenty-first century.” – erm I haven’t seen any lung-cancer colonies recently, nor oncology wards full of people with bells, hell I’ve never even noticed anything but feelings of sympathy towards cancer sufferers in general.

    Spiked and all the other LM fronts have a huge and consistent ideological bias. It’s easy to find environmentalists making dodgy scientific claims. It’s also easy to find corporations doing so (I give you the cosmetics industry for example). Spiked and the various LM offshoots go after the former and ignore the latter – who fund them.

    “The money to run the show has to come from somewhere, of course, but then you can’t run a charity easily on just tin-rattling unless you’re the British Heart Foundation or Cancer Research.”

    You still have to rattle a tin, you’ve just got to do it for a more select crowd. And considering the possibility that funders can influence research adversely is hardly a radical idea, it’s the major thing that undermined Wakefield’s credibility for example.

    “And the critique of Sense About Science advanced by Sourcewatch basically comes down to “everyone has some sort of vested interest so we must mistrust them all”. How very postmodern.”

    You’ve read that critique into it yourself though. Sourcewatch, to my eyes, just lists various interesting details about the organisation. Where an NGO gets its funding is an obviously interesting point for anybody who wants to understand it.

    “For the record, as far as I can see Sense About Science’s vested interest is that it would be better for people to put their faith in evidence-based science, and evidence-based advice, than in cults, woo, snake-oil and celebs selling you nonsense. If that’s a vested interest, then as a professional scientist I plead guilty to having one too.”

    Yes, but the question of what amounts to “evidence based science” is hardly uncontested. One of the nice things about science is that it’s open – you trust stuff because the method is transparent and explained in full. Similarly, in the case of a body which promotes sense about science, I’d like to know how it makes decisions about what amounts to “evidence based science” and which bits of nonsense to attack. In my opinion, a significant amount of the scientific nonsense in popular culture can be traced back to large corporations trying to sell stuff via the distorting lens of advertising. Why don’t sense about science go after “anti-wrinkle creams” or even treatments for “bloatedness” and all that mainstream rubbish rather than the easy ‘alternative’ nonsense?

    Those are the types of things that one should ask of such an organisation before one trusts it, considering the fact that there are indubitably large numbers of dodgy think tanks and advocacy groups around. As this particular one has a great lack of information about how it functions I’m naturally skeptical.

    The fact that it appears to be linked to the LM/RCP/IoI people makes me even more wary, especially when they appear to have been involved in both setting it up and running it.

    [1] www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,,295888,00.html
    [2] www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/2503/

  33. Twm said,

    January 5, 2007 at 1:25 am

    Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur : The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived- -Petronius (I think he was welsh)

  34. apothecary said,

    January 5, 2007 at 8:43 am

    re 30. Thanks for the better Latin. I never ‘ad the Latin, Could of been a ‘igh court judge, Dud…

  35. Arbroath36 said,

    January 5, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    The scary thing about all this is that some of my previously ‘normal’ friends now accept this nonsense as acceptable fact.

    As we live by a loch, one of these friends asked me to get him a swan’s feather. When I asked why he said he’d been asked to bring ‘something that goes a long way’ to one of his training sessions. I recommended Fairy Liquid.

  36. Dr Aust said,

    January 23, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    This thread’s gone quiet, but in case anyone’s still reading, has anyone apart from me noted the striking similarity between the arguments set out by Bootboy in posts #28 and #32 (the “they’re a front for LIving Marxism / Spiked Online” critique of Sense About Science) and the article in the Mail on Sunday on Jan 7th by noted eco-warrior and trustafarian Zac Goldsmith?

    www.naturalmatters.net/article.asp?article=2884&cat=219

    Is Zac stealing your lines, Bootboy?

  37. bootboy said,

    January 26, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    “Is Zac stealing your lines, Bootboy?”

    If he is, he’s welcome to them. I think I’ve made a reasonable case above, at least I think it’s reasonable and I don’t think that it makes much of a difference to my argument who else happens to put forward similar arguments. That would be some sort of guilt by association and I think the argument stands on its own merits.

  38. Dr Aust said,

    January 26, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    It’s just that this now seems to be the standard eco-worrier / warrior critique of Sense About Science… having had minor dealings with them I would say that their work has strength if the scientific community is signed up to whatever issue they are tackling – in such cases they articulate a view widely held by scientific experts, so it’s not that what they are giving out is only the opinion held by a clique of Sense About Science insiders”, whether former Spiked / LM associates or no.

    So on homeopathy and the regulation changes, they helped marshall the scientific objections, set up an online petition, got learned societies onboard to express their views etc. But this only happened because what they were saying expressed what all the scientists believe. Similarly with malaria and the idiocy being promulgated by homeopaths about malaria prophylaxis.

    Whether or not an ex-LM-er would naturally hate homeopathy because they would see it as superstition and their strand of leftism takes “progress” as a general good is irrelevant to me. What counts is that they show people, in ways easy to grasp, that homeopathy is bollocks – and so it is.

    But…. If they came out and said “Sense About Science believes there is no such things as global warming”, they would be laughed at, and have no chance of representing this as the view of the scientists, because most climate change experts would disagree with them.

    So in the end, even if one were to accept that they are dominated by the sort of “entryist” tendency you are arguing for, which I think is rather far-fetched – do we really think Dick Taverne is a LM stooge? – if they are saying common sense things about X or Y, and getting it out there, I can only say “Good on ‘em”.

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  40. sucram said,

    June 25, 2012 at 9:08 am

    //because fatigue, dizziness, headaches, aching joints and more are now being blamed on wi-fi, mobile phones and “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” instead (despite 31 published studies showing no relationship).//

    Its funny what a selective reading of the material will show. I see you completely ignored the many studies which HAVE shown contraindications of EMF radiation and mobile phones. You also ignored the fact that most the studies showing no relationship were rife with conflicts of interest.

    Here’s a short list of studies/evidence that DO show the harmful effects of mobile phone radiation-

    Health Canada is proposing to adopt a precautionary principle approach and guidelines for limited cell phone use. Other countries that have already done so to some degree or another include Russia, the UK, Israel, Belgium, Germany, India, Finland and France.
    • In May of 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO)/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a report admitting cell phones might cause cancer, classifying radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Class 2B).
    • A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published in JAMA earlier this year, led by leading brain imaging researcher Nora Volkow, found conclusive evidence of altered brain activity after just 50 minutes of cell phone exposure. This study, along with others, decimates the old notion that non-ionizing (non-thermal) radiation is incapable of having a biological effect.
    • An important new analysis from Sweden, just published in Neurology & Neurophysiology, projects a very large increase in brain cancer incidence resulting from widespread mobile phone use beginning in approximately 15 years. The projections are based on well-established known effects of this radiation on DNA:that mobile phone use decreases the efficiency of the repair of mutated DNA and that mobile phone use increases the rate of DNA mutations.

    Sources:
    • World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer May 31, 2011
    • Alive October 12, 2011
    • Prevent Disease December 9, 2011

    “Professor Khurana reviewed more than 100 studies on the effects of mobile phones, and concluded that “there is a significant and increasing body of evidence for a link between mobile phone usage and certain brain tumors.”
    Alarming new research indicates that children and teenagers are five times more likely to get brain cancer if they use cell phones. The study is raising fears that today’s young people may suffer an epidemic of the disease in later life.”

    Sources:
    • Mobile Phones and Brain Tumors – A Public Health Concern (PDF)
    • AlterNet March 30, 2008

    “The Swedish research was reported this month at the first international conference on cell phones and health. It came from a further analysis of data from one of the biggest studies carried out on the cell phone/cancer link, headed by Professor Lennart Hardell. Professor Hardell told the conference that “people who started mobile phone use before the age of 20″ had more than five-fold increase in glioma, a cancer of the glial cells that support the central nervous system.”

    Source: EMF & Health: A Global Issue September 8-9, 2008, The Royal Society, London
    Source: The Independent September 21, 2008

  41. sucram said,

    June 25, 2012 at 9:12 am

    //Dr Aust said,
    Whether or not an ex-LM-er would naturally hate homeopathy because they would see it as superstition and their strand of leftism takes “progress” as a general good is irrelevant to me. What counts is that they show people, in ways easy to grasp, that homeopathy is bollocks – and so it is.//

    Do your research buddy,

    Most clinical research conducted on homeopathic medicines that has been published in peer-review journals have shown positive clinical results,(3, 4) especially in the treatment of respiratory allergies (5, 6), influenza, (7) fibromyalgia, (8, 9) rheumatoid arthritis, (10) childhood diarrhea, (11) post-surgical abdominal surgery recovery, (12) attention deficit disorder, (13) and reduction in the side effects of conventional cancer treatments. (14) In addition to clinical trials, several hundred basic science studies have confirmed the biological activity of homeopathic medicines. One type of basic science trials, called in vitro studies, found 67 experiments (1/3 of them replications) and nearly 3/4 of all replications were positive. (15, 16)

    3) Linde L, Clausius N, Ramirez G, et al., “Are the Clinical Effects of Homoeopathy Placebo Effects? A Meta-analysis of Placebo-Controlled Trials,” Lancet, September 20, 1997, 350:834-843.
    (4) Lüdtke R, Rutten ALB. The conclusions on the effectiveness of homeopathy highly depend on the set of analyzed trials. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. October 2008. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2008.06/015.
    (5) Taylor, MA, Reilly, D, Llewellyn-Jones, RH, et al., Randomised controlled trial of homoeopathy versus placebo in perennial allergic rhinitis with overview of four trial Series, BMJ, August 19, 2000, 321:471-476.
    (6) Ullman, D, Frass, M. A Review of Homeopathic Research in the Treatment of Respiratory Allergies. Alternative Medicine Review. 2010:15,1:48-58. www.thorne.com/altmedrev/.fulltext/15/1/48.pdf
    (7) Vickers AJ. Homoeopathic Oscillococcinum for preventing and treating influenza and influenza-like syndromes. Cochrane Reviews. 2009.
    (8) Bell IR, Lewis II DA, Brooks AJ, et al. Improved clinical status in fibromyalgia patients treated with individualized homeopathic remedies versus placebo, Rheumatology. 2004:1111-5.
    (9) Fisher P, Greenwood A, Huskisson EC, et al., “Effect of Homoeopathic Treatment on Fibrositis (Primary Fibromyalgia),” BMJ, 299(August 5, 1989):365-6.
    (10) Jonas, WB, Linde, Klaus, and Ramirez, Gilbert, “Homeopathy and Rheumatic Disease,” Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America, February 2000,1:117-123.
    (11) Jacobs J, Jonas WB, Jimenez-Perez M, Crothers D, Homeopathy for Childhood Diarrhea: Combined Results and Metaanalysis from Three Randomized, Controlled Clinical Trials, Pediatr Infect Dis J, 2003;22:229-34.
    (12) Barnes, J, Resch, KL, Ernst, E, “Homeopathy for Post-Operative Ileus: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, 1997, 25: 628-633.
    (13) M, Thurneysen A. Homeopathic treatment of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a randomised, double blind, placebo controlled crossover trial. Eur J Pediatr. 2005 Dec;164(12):758-67. Epub 2005 Jul 27.
    (14) Kassab S, Cummings M, Berkovitz S, van Haselen R, Fisher P. Homeopathic medicines for adverse effects of cancer treatments. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 2.
    (15) Witt CM, Bluth M, Albrecht H, Weisshuhn TE, Baumgartner S, Willich SN. The in vitro evidence for an effect of high homeopathic potencies–a systematic review of the literature. Complement Ther Med. 2007 Jun;15(2):128-38. Epub 2007 Mar 28.
    (16) Endler PC, Thieves K, Reich C, Matthiessen P, Bonamin L, Scherr C, Baumgartner S. Repetitions of fundamental research models for homeopathically prepared dilutions beyond 10-23: a bibliometric study. Homeopathy, 2010; 99: 25-36.

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