Saturday December 30, 2006
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 The media’s anti-MMR campaign continued unabated as the Telegraph, Mail and Times all reported on unpublished research claiming to show a link between the vaccine and autism, even though the research was from a man with a history of making such claims as far back as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.