Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 13 November 2010
If science has any credibility, it derives from transparency: when you make a claim about how something works, you provide references to experiments, which describe openly and in full what was done, in enough detail for the experiment to be replicated, detailing what was measured, and how. Then people discuss what they think this all means in the real world.
Maria Hatzistefanis is a star of lifestyle pages and the owner of Rodial, the cosmetics company who sell a product called “Boob Job” which they claim will give you a “fuller bust” “increase the bust size” and “plump up the décolleté area” with “an instant lifting and firming effect”, and an increase of half a cup size in 56 days. Or rather an increase of “8.4%”. It’s all very precise.
Now I’m not going to lose a great deal of sleep over anybody who buys a magic cream to make their breasts grow bigger. What worries me is that Maria Hatzistefanis’s company are now threatening a doctor with a libel case, simply for daring to voice doubts over these claims.
This is her crime. Dr Dalia Nield told the Mail it was “highly unlikely” the cream would make your breasts bigger, and questioned the amount of information provided by Rodial. “The manufacturers are not giving us any information on tests they have carried out. They are not telling us the exact ingredients in the product and how they increase the size of the breast.”
That’s fair. I don’t trust claims without evidence, especially not unlikely ones about a magic cream that makes your breasts expand. Maybe it does work – I don’t particularly care either way – but when I asked the company to send me any evidence they had, or any information on ingredients, they flatly refused to send me anything at all.
This is especially odd, since I’ve seen the letter that Rodial’s lawyers sent, and they tell Dr Nield: “Our client on request would have provided all information required on clinical assessment and product ingredients.”
Dr Nield went on to speculate that the gel could be “potentially dangerous… it may even harm the skin and the breasts – we need a full analysis.” Again, this is perfectly reasonable: anything that has real effects on the body may also have unintended side effects, and that is an entirely uncontroversial statement, especially when important information is being witheld.
But then the story gets stranger. When Sense About Science, who have helped drive the campaign for libel law reform in the UK, put out a press release about Rodial threatening Dr Nield with libel, they themselves were contacted by Hegarty LLP, solicitors acting for Rodial Limited. This time they seemed to be trying to stop people from even daring to talk about the existence of their libel threat.
People often ask if there are short cuts in spotting nonsense. In reality, it’s not easy to do in a checklist, because there are so many elaborate ways to distort evidence, but for me there is one very clear risk factor. The entirety of science is built on transparency, giving your evidence, and engaging with legitimate criticism. If you hear of a company refusing to hand over the evidence they say supports their claims, whether they are a drug company or some dismal cosmetics firm, all you know is that you are being deprived of information, and that vital parts of the picture are missing. If you hear someone is threatening to sue their critics, again, all you know is that people will be intimidated from raising legitimate concerns, and again, you are being deprived of information.
Meanwhile, Dr Nield is now one individual facing a large company. Individual doctors and scientists are commonly asked for their opinion on whether or not medical interventions work, and it’s plainly in our collective interest that they give honest answers without fear that their lives will be taken over for years on end by a major company with money and a distorted sense of reputation, and losing vast sums of money even if they successfully defend the case, as has happened so many times recently.
With the law in its current state, doctors and scientists might be wise to simply stop giving any view about any drug or other health-related product that is marketed for commercial purposes, in any forum, and make it clear that from now on, decisions about efficacy should be made solely by the manufacturers. Good luck with that.
Update 14:00 13/11/10
Yay! Rodial have started playing games. So, initially they refused to give me (or others) any evidence for their grand claims, or even say what the ingredients were. Now they’ve quietly changed the contents of their “Boob Job” page: previously it linked to the Daily Mail story (which was weird, since this was the article that their lawyers claimed was libellous, but on the page they linked to is saying “CHECK OUT THE FABULOUS PRESS FOR BOOB JOB ON THE DAILY MAIL”); now it says “CLICK HERE TO SEE THE BOOB JOB KEY INGREDIENT CLINICALS”.
If you’d like to read the “key ingredient clinicals”, whatever the science geniuses at Rodial think this phrase means, that document is here. Having scanned through this document, I think it’s fair to say their evidence is even more informatively ridiculous than I initially assumed it might be. Joy! More to come.