Today’s bible reading

December 25th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, heroes, heroes of bad science, religion | 26 Comments »

On the birthday of Jesus Christ – who was clearly a very nice guy, giant sky wizard issues aside – I can think of no better bible reading than this, Daniel 1:8, a description of the first ever clinical trial.

Daniel and his people have been dragged off to the court of king Nebuchadnezzar, to be in the king’s army, and the eunuch has said that they must eat the king’s rations, which are meat and other rich food, to make them strong. Daniel disagrees: he would rather eat vegetables, and he thinks that his people will be just as healthy on this diet.

8But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank: therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself.

9Now God had brought Daniel into favour and tender love with the prince of the eunuchs.

10And the prince of the eunuchs said unto Daniel, I fear my lord the king, who hath appointed your meat and your drink: for why should he see your faces worse liking than the children which are of your sort? then shall ye make me endanger my head to the king.

11Then said Daniel to Melzar, whom the prince of the eunuchs had set over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah,

12Prove thy servants, I beseech thee, ten days; and let them give us pulse to eat, and water to drink.

13Then let our countenances be looked upon before thee, and the countenance of the children that eat of the portion of the king’s meat: and as thou seest, deal with thy servants.

14So he consented to them in this matter, and proved them ten days.

15And at the end of ten days their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children which did eat the portion of the king’s meat.

16Thus Melzar took away the portion of their meat, and the wine that they should drink; and gave them pulse.

So there you go: the research question was identified, a trial was designed, conducted, and the results were implemented in policy. Although to be fair the project was probably underpowered.

Thanks for a fun year, and see you in 2010. Merry Xmas!


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26 Responses



  1. Andrej Bauer said,

    December 25, 2009 at 5:50 am

    The story carries another important message, the one about how we look for evidence that supports our beliefs. Daniel devised the scientific trial not because of his natural scientific curiosity and genuine wish to find out which nutritional advice was better, but because of an a priori belief that he should not eat meat. I suppose the story would have been more educational if either the guys eating meat ended up with farier countenances and fatter in flesh, or if Melzar overruled the trial results with his political power.

  2. danielrendall said,

    December 25, 2009 at 9:51 am

    It wasn’t properly blinded though. Unlike Samson, who was (Judges 16:21).

  3. Perrorist said,

    December 25, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Does this mean the Bible favours vegetarians?

  4. choddo said,

    December 25, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Is this analogous to MPs getting funded moats while we proles have to put up with X-Factors and asbos? Ol’ Neduchadnezarr clearly had way better PR.

  5. Neil said,

    December 25, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Are those numbers on the left references to other papers?

  6. Synchronium said,

    December 25, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Here’s one of my favourites:

    1 Samuel 18:25-27

    And Saul said, Thus shall ye say to David, The king desireth not any dowry, but an hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of the king’s enemies. But Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines.

    And when his servants told David these words, it pleased David well to be the king’s son in law: and the days were not expired.

    Wherefore David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full tale to the king, that he might be the king’s son in law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife.

  7. Tom said,

    December 25, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Why do you say it was underpowered? It found an effect. It had plenty of power to detect the effect that existed.

  8. Santiago G Moreno said,

    December 25, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Too good to miss…

    HARLOT plc: an amalgamation of the world’s two oldest professions.
    Sackett, David, Oxman, Andrew

    BMJ 2003;327:1442-1445, doi:10.1136/bmj.327.7429.1442

  9. notzed said,

    December 26, 2009 at 3:03 am

    “a description of the first ever clinical trial.”

    That’s a bit western/judeo centric isn’t it? :-P

  10. Geph said,

    December 26, 2009 at 11:12 am

    OK Ben, I agree that prima facie this is a clinical trial. What troubles me is Daniels’ involvement, given his prior history of magic tricks. His eponymous book refers to chums Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego exiting fiery furnaces entered unscathed, apparently he got on well with pussycats, and he was one of a kind when it came to linguistics. Were the data soundly and objectively recorded? Has anyone yet hacked his email account? Just a thought.

  11. ms said,

    December 27, 2009 at 3:13 am

    A few years earlier, Psamtik I allegedly performed a single-blind trial: www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0126:book%3D2:chapter%3D2 I say allegedly, because Herodotus tends towards “some bloke down the pub told me this great story about crocodiles”.

  12. SimonW said,

    December 27, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    I thought the appropriate evidence based reading for the day was John 7:41-42

    Others said, “He is the Christ.” Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?”

  13. le canard noir said,

    December 27, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Whilst the journal appears to have a high impact factor, its editorial policy appears to be very against peer review and clearly states that it is self-published.

  14. prescott said,

    December 28, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    The Generic drugs are an aid to the population as though maybe some do not have the same effectiveness of the original medicines, have the components necessary to dispel the pain or discomfort that occasionally gives us any disease. Many locations to provide adequate information on findrxonline generic as indicating that the chronic pain medication are the most sought after and preferred in the U.S. for its economy and quality.

  15. MedsVsTherapy said,

    December 28, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    This piece of literature has been read, literally religiously, devoutly, regularly, by thousands since written. Memorized, no less. Nonetheless, sadly, the wisdom of the controlled trial, right there in the bvery beginning of Daniel, was not recognized; Daniel’s trial did not lead to more diet-related research or more examination of the power of research design to illustrate healthful effects. In intellectual history, we waited until James Lind’s regognized anti-scurvy trial, in the 1750s, before we picked up the idea of the controlled trial and employed that as a tool to generate knowledge. Herodotus’ anecdote, arguably conveyed about the same time as Daniel, is word-of-mouth, and not as well-designed, but is valuable wisdom either way. The History is likely nowhere near as widely read as Daniel, yet still extremely widely read, yet the trial did nto take off as a means for evaluating claims of knowledge. What might be right in front of our noses nowadays that we are not recognizing?

  16. Sarah Hague said,

    December 29, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    I bet many of Daniel’s pals were none too pleased at getting a plate of veggies instead of a nice roast dinner with spuddies and gravy and lashings of wine. I can imagine there was plenty of muttering and grumbling and accusations of ‘party pooper’ being sent his way.

    Love your book, btw. I did actually buy it :)

  17. Daibhid C said,

    December 29, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Le Canard – the alleged editor and primary contributor to the journal specifically denies the existence of any peers – hence, no peer review.

  18. Duck said,

    December 31, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Actually, peer-review of the writing and editing process was likely an extensive collaboration across space and time, even if occasionally conducted through such unusual channels as declaring holy war on dissenters.

  19. BloodyViking said,

    January 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    A couple nits about your first sentence:
    1) No one knows when Jesus’ birthday is. If we choose to accept the non-sky wizard parts of the Biblical account of his birth, it certainly is Not in December.

    2) “Christ” is a title or honorific, not a name. If you don’t buy into the “giant sky wizard” bit, you really shouldn’t use the title.

  20. James DS said,

    January 9, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Maybe they had a “fairer” continence due to anemia if they’d removed meat from their diets… Plus how exactly did they get fatter by switching meat and wine for veg and water? Sounds like bodged results to me! Maybe I should stop believing everything in the Bible :(

    Also, can someone explain the whole “giant sky wizard” reference to me?

  21. 4tytwo said,

    January 11, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I wonder what the placebo would have been?

    Nice try for a joke but I guess it might be wasted on a lot of pseudo scientists. Perhaps if you would have printed it in greek or hebrew some people would have understood it as they would have been required to think. I prefere the translation of Luther who translated the result in 1-15:

    Und nach den zehn Tagen waren sie schöner und besser bei Leibe denn alle Knaben, so von des Königs Speise aßen.

    which translates it into “beauty and in good shape” as {baw-ree’baw-sawr’} could also be translated into firm fleshed albeit being fat was a sign of beauty once.

    But then our modern society does not believe in a healthy diet in the early days of life but in the use of multi vitamin pills and antioxidant’s in later life. The fact that it can be too late then should be easy to comprehend when looking at the effect of antioxidants and smoking. If the primary cancer has already formed the inhibition of apoptosis by those antioxidants must lead to the progression of the cancer. At that point more “radical” treatment is needed. How’s that for a metaphor? I already postulated that back in the late 90′s but would have never been allowed to publish that as I was working for a company promoting health in antioxidants. However I would have hoped you would have picked this up in your nice bad science book. But perhaps you could not refere to a publication about the hazards and benefits of antioxidants that came out of a nutritionist journal.
    www.jacn.org/cgi/reprint/20/suppl_5/464S

  22. Dionysus said,

    January 11, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    You guys would dig this story:

    www.news.com.au/national/mary-mackillop-saved-me-cancer-victim/story-e6frfkvr-1225818177108

  23. Tessa K said,

    January 12, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    15And at the end of ten days their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children which did eat the portion of the king’s meat.

    I think you’ll find that this is a mistranslation initially in the Tyndale bible, which was then perpetuated in the King James Version. If you go back to the original Hebrew it does in fact read ‘ fairer and fartier in flesh’ – which makes sense if they were eating a pulse-rich diet.

    It is essential to consult primary sources rather than rely on reportage.

  24. Dionysus said,

    January 12, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    But what about Rupert Murdoch’s people reporting it as fact that a woman was cured of cancer by praying to Mary MacKillop?

  25. heavens said,

    January 26, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    It might not have been underpowered: I was told as a child that the two groups compared were all of the Israelite captives (at least, all of the upper-class captives), compared to all of the upper-class Babylonian young men.

    It wasn’t randomized, and was only single-blind, and it’s unclear whether the control group realizes that they’re being studied (which could permit deliberate manipulation by the experimental group), but it might have included an adequate number of subjects. (I’m still not convinced that the initial 10-day experiment ran long enough, but the results three years later are sufficient in my mind.)

    Also, the meat and wine were being rejected strictly for religious reasons, as the problem was not that they were meat and wine, but that the meat and wine weren’t “kosher”. However, drunkenness is widely accepted as causing health problems, so it might well be that following this religious rule had a positive health effect.

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