Self-indulgent retrospective – 2007

December 28th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 22 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday December 29 2007

Nobody listens to a word I say: I’ve been saying it for so long now that I think I’d be sorry if they did. Scaremongering season kicked off with the Panorama WiFi special. Among its many crimes against sense, this program featured “independent testing” by – oh, hang on – a campaigner against WiFi, who also sells his own brand of special protective equipment to those frightened about WiFi. The BBC have since upheld complaints. Immediately after the show was broadcast, the Independent were promoting elaborate quack devices to protect against WiFi: these will take off in 2008.

The media’s MMR hoax – as it will come to be known – was kept alive on the Observer’s front page; the Independent cried “suppressed cancer report shows GM link to potatoes” about a research paper which didn’t mention the word “cancer” (not once!); and the scattergun scaremongering of the Daily Mail peaked when they demanded the banning of a chemical which had, rather brilliantly, already been banned.

Combatants in the drug war continued to chip away at their own credibility. The Independent on Sunday repeatedly announced that cannabis is 25 times stronger than before (in fact average potency has doubled). That was followed with “cannabis doubles the risk of psychosis”. Then the MHRA pushed a scare about “nitrous oxide” claiming that “the ‘rush’ users experience is caused by starving the brain of oxygen” (it’s a drug which acts on the opioid and NMDA neuroreceptor systems).

There were the foolish stories in every paper imaginable: we were told that “girls prefer pink” for genetic reasons when the study showed no such thing; there was a bizarre Times piece about scientists trying to make sheep gay with horrific animal experiments, when they were doing no such thing; there were brain imaging experiments on voters which proved nothing at all; and a “team of Cambridge mathematicians” “proved” that Jessica Alba has the perfect wiggle, except there was no “team of Cambridge mathematicians”, and the data was rigged to produce yet another pointless non-science non-story to promote yet another pointless cosmetic product on the news pages.

The media fell over perpetual motion machines with delight, whether it was Steorn or Ecowatts: as long as it broke the laws of physics, and taught those smug scientists a lesson, the hacks were happy. And the papers went even wilder over the South African ex-cop with his magic quantum box: it could locate anyone, anywhere in the world – including Madeleine McCann – using its secret “matter orientation system”.

Under cover of this nonsense, we somehow managed to slip all kinds of geeky stuff into the paper, including the mystery of why more proper trials are not done on public policy,

how ad hominem is a bad idea in science since the Nazis spotted that cigarettes cause cancer and were ignored, and another on why everyone should have free and open public access to academic research papers, which is all the more important since the media cannot report science accurately. We reviewed psychology research into “cognitive illusions” which shows how intuition – valuable in some circumstances – is rubbish for making statistical inferences.

We made our own fake fingerprints to fool biometric ID cards, using gelatin and modelling clay, and examined spectacular flaws in the premature baby survival data given to the abortion enquiry of the parliamentary science and technology select committee by a prominent christian medic.

We saw how evil Big Pharma are lobbying to get their adverts onto telly in Europe, the complicated methodological reasons why drug company trials seem to favour their own drugs, how we have made drug trials so unnecessarily expensive that governments choose not to fund them, and how we could use the NHS as a phenomenal reserve of research data on illness. We watched drug company Abbott bully the Thai government to stop them manufacturing vital AIDS drugs off patent, and felt slightly ill as they threatened to withdraw other lifesaving drugs from Thailand as punishment. We saw Aids quackery around the world, and on our own front door in the UK.

In the face of all this, the homeopaths’ melodramatic whining about some kind of special vendetta against them looks pretty weak. Of course this year marked the rebranding of Dr Gillian McKeith PhD as a pantomime figure rather than an academic expert, but the wider project of deliberately overcomplicating diet in order to create a new profession called “nutritionists” – and thus paradoxically disempower us all – went so far that by christmas, the media were cheerfully pushing chocolate and booze as health foods, on account of their antioxidant content.

Herbal therapists tried to bully UCL into removing an academic’s blog that was critical of their ideas (it was reinstated a few days after we covered the story) and the Society of Homeopaths similarly threatened to sue legitimate critics. I loved every minute: this is one of many amusing differences between quacks and proper medical academics.

Meanwhile Equazen and Durham council have kept extremely quiet about their so-called “trials” on expensive fish oil pills for GCSE pupils in Durham - which received blanket media promotion throughout 2006 – perhaps because they now seem to have had, er, an arguably negative result. A channel Five documentary on fish oil was pulled in mysterious circumstances after questions were raised over the (ridiculous) “research” it contained.

And lastly, the real dangers of bad statistical reasoning were chillingly illustrated by Lucia de Berk, a nurse locked up for murder in Holland after an unusually high number of patients died on her shifts. It’s bound to happen to someone, somewhere in the world: it could be you next!

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk


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22 Responses



  1. gadgeezer said,

    December 29, 2007 at 12:11 am

    I called most of those in the informal sweepstakes about which stories would make your round-up. However, I have lost most of that money on the absence of Professor Patrick Holford. That’s the way the vitamin C oxidises.

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 29, 2007 at 12:14 am

    with so many great competitors it’s often hard to pick the funniest.

  3. scatter said,

    December 29, 2007 at 9:59 am

    An excellent haul. Good work Ben and many thanks for a fascinating and very entertaining year of Bad Science.

  4. YourLocalGP said,

    December 29, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    A veritable basket of delights. Great writing on a really informative and entertaining year. Thankyou.

  5. cebolla said,

    December 29, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    Indeed,many thanks for your web-sight[sick] which is first-click on my ‘Thinking Man’s Bookmarks’.Particularly enjoyed the interview with that nutty homeopathy lady:comedy gold as you spelled out your email for her at the end…”thats BADSCIENCE..”
    happy new year

  6. marcdraco said,

    December 29, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    We all have a good hearty laugh – and then we should collapse into a chair and reflect that the average guy in the street (and that could be your boss, your brother, your mate down the pub, etc.) all believe whatever The Mail et. al. spoon feed them.

    It’s a wonder we’re not in a new dark age. Wait. Perhaps we already are.

  7. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 29, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    the average guy in the street (and that could be your boss, your brother, your mate down the pub, etc.) all believe whatever The Mail et. al. spoon feed them.

    mm maybe, i’m not so sure. i strongly suspect that a likely outcome of all the nonsense in the media is a kind of formless, uncallibrated, unreasoned, blanket cynicism. “one minute science tells us that courgettes are good for cancer, the next they tell us that alcohol is bad for you, it’s all nonsense” etc.

  8. manigen said,

    December 29, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    A damn good year for the column all round, I think. Congratulations, Ben.

  9. student grant said,

    December 29, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    Ben,
    Thanks for supporting sanity, exposing the fruit-loops and charlatans, and giving us a laugh along the way.
    Happy New Year!

  10. marcdraco said,

    December 29, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    mm maybe, i’m not so sure. i strongly suspect that a likely outcome of all the nonsense in the media is a kind of formless, uncallibrated, unreasoned, blanket cynicism. “one minute science tells us that courgettes are good for cancer, the next they tell us that alcohol is bad for you, it’s all nonsense” etc.

    So then end result is F.U.D. and confusion; which is good for the tabloids, great for the crazy non-science of perpetual motion machines & creationism, and bad for people like us who make it our life’s work to make the world a slightly better, saner place.

    Without people like you Ben, we’d be in a whole heap of doo doo!

  11. jackpt said,

    December 30, 2007 at 12:04 am

    It’s kind of bitter-sweet. The responses to the articles were often depressing. The homeopathy people particularly. Your column is always a good read though. I hope things like G2 columns and a higher profile become a trend in 2008.

  12. AitchJay said,

    December 30, 2007 at 2:00 am

    Thanks for a great read every week Ben, look forward to more of the same in the coming year..

  13. evidencebasedeating said,

    December 31, 2007 at 12:05 am

    Phew!

    so much to cover

    so succinctly put

    here’s to the next 10 years of weekly Badscience – if the Grauniad know whats good for them

    oh, and solve a puzzle. since when did you archive stuff from Jan-August 1007?

    Are you a timelord?

  14. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 31, 2007 at 1:02 am

    Except for almost every detail, could the carrot man be the guy writing here? > www.positivehealth.com/article-view.php?articleid=2038
    (found on several web sites)

    Response there: “I have trained on the Gerson Therapy…one should consider that others may have such a weakened system and compromised liver that could not take more of the juices without detoxing support from the coffee enemas; this is very serious, particularly if tumours dissolve too quickly bringing toxicity levels up.”

    Carrot Guy may be dead; articles on his video site aren’t dated but I don’t see anything referring to 2007.

  15. Peter F Foley said,

    December 31, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Did Lucia De Berk work at a Hospice? The problem is the Human brain is hardwired to engage in low benefit behaviors to survive instead of laying down to die when it is hopeless. That and faulty pattern recognition memes. I washed out my colon with caffeine and felt better–instead of changing my diet and drinking one more Litre of water a day to ease the ‘flow’. Keep lighting the candles of reason in the hurricane of stupidity. Pete.

  16. Peter Bowditch said,

    January 2, 2008 at 2:13 am

    Nice stuff, Ben. I don’t think either of us are going to be short of material in the near future. Or even the far future, unfortunately.

  17. jeffers said,

    January 2, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    A couple of weeks ago I tried posting a message on this site drawing attention to the Bioinitiative Report, a hugely important study, almost entirely ignored by our beloved media, published last August by an international team of experts (with a contribution by the European Environmental Agency). The study supplies comprehensive and up to date scientific evidence for the serious health risks associated with electromagnetic fields, including those associated with wifi (www.bioinitiative.org). No sooner had my post appeared than it disappeared again. Perhaps there was a technical error on the site; but my message was strongly worded and not a little sarcastic (whereas most messages on this site are implausably adulatory of its owner), so I wonder whether Dr Goldacre pulled my posting, numbering it among the “abusive” messages he claims to have received from what he likes to call “the electrosensitivity lobby”. Here’s to finding out.

  18. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 4, 2008 at 12:20 am

    Well, for a start, “Bioinitiative Report” strikes this near-layman as a very, very silly name.

  19. guthrie said,

    January 4, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Jeffers, if the above posts are implausibly adulatory to you, then I’m afraid that your idea of sarcastic and strongly worded meant that your post was taken as being insulting and rude.

  20. Kinky The Cat said,

    January 4, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    Have had a look at the Bioiniative Report it seems to me to contain a lot of anecdote and not a lot of actual evidence. It is suggesting alarmist changes to public policy on the offchance that electromagnetic fields **might** be bad, even though there is no actual proof that they damage people.
    Jeffers – Ben has always been supportive of people showing the distressing symptoms attributed by “the electrosensitive lobby” to electromagnetic fields while pointing out that it cannot be proven that this is the cause of their illness.

  21. Kinky The Cat said,

    January 4, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    Sorry folks, dodgy laptop skills…

  22. spk76 said,

    January 4, 2008 at 11:53 pm

    It’s the electrosmog discombobulating your cognitive faculties.

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