How dumb can one company be?

January 10th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bbc, detox, references | 60 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday 10 January 2009

Obviously by now you can interpolate my views on detox: meaningless, symbolic, gimmicky shortlived health gestures with a built-in expiry date, when we could be reading about the NHS’s surprisingly useful website to help you stop smoking (do it now:, or lifestyle pieces on the joys of buying a bike, and making a genuine move to integrate exercise into your daily life for the long term. I’m not trying to bore you. But after a few months of concentrating on dodgy reporting in the media, I had genuinely forgotten how far out a proper fruitcake can get.

Fate dealt me Nas Amir Ahmadi, managing director (which earns her the impressive soubriquet “MD”) of a company called Detoxinabox. I discussed detox with her on Radio 4. My interest in Nas’s work was first piqued when she began to deny actual verbatim quotes from her own website. What is the evidence that your detox regime will eradicate cadmium from my body, I asked? You must have the wrong website, doctor. Never heard of the idea, she said. But there it was, bright as day: “One of the most complex detoxification functions is against heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadminum [sic], nickel, arsenic, and aluminum [which isn’t a heavy metal].” And so on.

Now, of all the strategies for wiggling out of a foolish statement, simply denying you ever made it strikes me as the least intellectually sophisticated, possibly the most irritating, and certainly the most shortsighted. I’m sure she’s not the first. Nas says she made a mistake. No problem.

In returning to the website to check, I had a look around. There were lots of exciting claims. Here are five. “Pumpkin seeds are a natural depression cure!” “Lemon helps maintain healthy teeth and bones” “Olives help delay the effects of ageing.” “½ teaspoon of cinnamon per day helps lower cholesterol!”, and “Tuna helps lower blood pressure”. I asked Nas if they had any evidence to back up these claims.

No, she agreed. They do not have any “scientific evidence”.

Then she seemed to change her mind, and offered some. The evidence she offered included: a study involving 7 people; a random webpage that says “Lemons build bones and teeth and nourish the brain and nerve cells”; a typically tenuous nutritionist chain of reasoning involving the almost-dead antioxidant hypothesis; weak observational correlations; and so on.

But some of the site, like a page titled “Which Came First – Depression or Diabetes?“, stuck out a mile. It was quite sciencey, quite plausible, and quite interesting, a write up of a proper research paper. Was this really written by Detoxinabox? No. In fact, they simply copied the entire text, verbatim, hundreds of words, from a blog post by a proper pharmacist named Jennifer Gibson, and passed it off as their own, removing only her name, and swapping in their own images. The original image in Jennifer Gibson’s blog post would have given away the actual source. Ownership of ideas is a grey area, but this seems to be a rather clear example of plagiarism, over 500 words from start to finish. The person running the Brainblogger website, where the piece was published, has described detoxinabox as “thieves”. Detoxinabox have not responded to me on this issue, but they have removed the page from their site.

And interestingly, Nas’s difficulty in recalling the claims about cadminum from her own website might also be explained by their original source. The entire sentence “One of the most complex detoxification functions is against heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadminum, nickel, arsenic, and aluminum.” appears, verbatim, on another company’s website,, complete with that tell-tale mis-spelling of cadmium.

There’s nothing unique about Detoxinabox. What’s amazing is the ratio between their competence and their media penetrance which is unreplicated, I would say, in any field outside science. Let’s just re-examine the crimes. You deny what is plainly true. You make claims without evidence. You admit that, but then you change your mind. Your evidence is magnificently poor. You seem to plagiarise whole articles, verbatim, from real everyday people who’ve actually bothered to spend some time familiarising themselves with science, and write about it online because they’re passionate about it. And finally, crucially, your industry’s nonsense ideas get more – and more favourable – coverage in mainstream media than any piece of actual science, or any meaningful public health intervention.

Nas has explained to me that she is mystified why so many people from the world of science and medicine seem to be annoyed with her. Yup. It’s a mystery.

Advert Break #1:

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Advert Break #2:

I don’t take ads for my online empire (which is just one of many reasons why it’s probably not worth suing me, the other being that I’m right about you, and if you can show I’m not, I’ll cheerfully clarify anyway). This is from my friend Robin. He has paid me in bumsex. You cannot win Robin’s bumsex by suing me.

I am performing a 52 date tour around the UK. The new show is about crazed fundamentalists, Carl Sagan, intelligent design, the poo fairy, US foreign policy and greedy, pea eating monks amongst other things. Like most comedians, I’ll probably steal some of Ben’s best lines and pretend they’re my own, he likes that. Most of the dates can be found at I will try not to get too cross about Ann Coulter’s book Godless, but you never now.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

60 Responses

  1. Psychedelia Smith said,

    January 14, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Am I the only one starting to worry about the shocking fall in the BBC’s news production values over the last year or two? Not only do the Detox people effectively get free advertising, but check Ben’s miniblog (‘People in the media do this…’) and it also turns out they recently misquoted genius mental health writer Dorothy Rowe to make it look as if she said something that was pretty much 180 degrees from her actual position.

    There’ve been a couple of other examples of woo/other rubbish making its way onto the BBC – the ‘society caring more about Downs Syndrome’ story (Radio 4); ‘Britain’s happiest places mapped’, loads of Dore stuff, plus that wierdy pipe thing that was supposed to produce green energy. Not to mention an entire episode of Panorama – Panorama, for Chrissakes! – devoted to panicking people about WiFi.

    I suppose it’s a media-wide problem, as Ben never tires of highlighting, but it’s still depressing to find out they just pull half their bloody stuff off the wire.

    At least, in their defence, they occasionally give Ben some airtime.

  2. pv said,

    January 15, 2009 at 1:01 am

    NorthernBoy said,

    January 12, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Yes, there is a market for it, but it is a market that one gains entry to by lying and cheating. Why is this any different from any other form of fraud, where people make untrue claims?

    I’ve been saying this for years about homeopathy and all forms of quackery. It’s against the law to make false financial claims (even using the words “apparently” and “allegedly”) in order to swindle people out of their money. But when it comes to sCAM products the same fraudulent claims are ok even though people are being taken for suckers and their pockets being raided. Fraud is fraud. It’s still lying with intent to extract money, and it’s disgraceful.

  3. gaygael said,

    January 15, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Here’s more nonsense – Shola Oslo ( offers herbal remedies to get rid of pelvic inflammatory disease, chlamydia, hydrosalpinx (blocked Fallopian tubes), etc. Unfounded and dangerous claims that she spreads on YouTube. Amazingly she reckons that being a kinesiologist qualifies her to give medical advice.

  4. SliderSteve said,

    January 15, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    @Psychedelia Smith

    You are not the only one worried about the fall of the BBC’s standards. BBC news was always my news channel/bulletin of choice and the BBC News website was always my daily fix for the days news but in recent years I’ve started to notice a noticeable decline.

    I often find myself saying now, “Where’s the unbiased reporting gone?, why is he/she considered an expert?” etc but worse is when they have guests or ask opinions of people who have a huge vested interest – such as someone selling a product!

    DetoxInABox is one example but one other which really irked me was on the story of Britain’s energy future. They had a politician( trying to remember his name) and the expert they chose to was a businessman who owned a solar panel company. he spent the entire time selling his products and the reporters didn’t even blink.

    This media-apathy is spreading so it’s not only the scare mongers that are adding to the misinformation miasma but now once reputable news outlets are at it.

    A fight that helps to ensure that all stories, reports etc are up to a good scientific standard while at the same time engaging and comprehensible is a fight worth taking part in.

    What starts with the correct reporting of a relatively small company/issue can be replicated across the board.

    This should hopefully return the trust we could have in media outlets.

  5. daniao said,

    January 15, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    re 60 and 61, there’s an interesting post on Prof Colquhoun’s blog at which says that a law passed last year in the UK brings unproven medical claims within the remit of trading standards.

  6. Psychedelia Smith said,

    January 16, 2009 at 12:15 pm


    I’m starting to worry about a few other media outlets too – CNN have apparently sacked their entire science team, according to this link I found via

  7. Psychedelia Smith said,

    January 16, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    And here’s the consequence:

  8. jms1917 said,

    January 17, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    Does religion count as Woo. And if not, why not? I think we should be told.

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