Kids who spot bullshit, and the adults who get upset about it

June 4th, 2011 by Ben Goldacre in brain gym, bullying, childishness, schools | 36 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 28 May 2011

If you can tear yourself away from Ryan Giggs’ penis for just one moment, I have a different censorship story.


Brain Gym is a schools program I’ve been writing on since 2003. It’s a series of elaborate physical movements with silly pseudoscientific justifications: you wiggle your head back and forth because that gets more blood into your frontal lobes for clearer thinking; you contort your fingers together to improve some unnamed “energy flow”; they’re keen on drinking water, because “processed foods” – I’m quoting the Brain Gym Teacher’s Manual – “do not contain water.” You pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for Brain Gym, and it’s still done in hundreds of state schools across the UK.

This week I got an email from a science teacher about a 13 year old pupil. Both have to remain anonymous. This pupil wrote an article about Brain Gym for her school paper, explaining why it’s nonsense: the essay is respectful, straightforward, and factual. But the school decided they couldn’t print it, because it would offend teachers in the junior school who use Brain Gym.

Now, this is weakminded, and perhaps even vicious. More interesting, though, is how often children are able to spot bullshit, and how often adults want to shut them up.

Emily Rosa is the youngest person ever to have published a scientific paper in JAMA, one of the most influential medical journals in the world. At the age of 9 she saw a TV program about nurses who practise “Therapeutic Touch”, claiming they can detect and manipulate a “human energy field” by hovering their hands above a patient.

For her school science fair project, Rosa conceived and executed an experiment to test if they really could detect this “field”. 21 experienced practitioners put their palms on a table, behind a screen. Rosa flipped a coin, hovered her hand over the therapist’s left or right palm accordingly, and waited for them to say which it was: the therapists performed no better than chance, and with 280 attempts there was sufficient statistical power to show that these claims were bunk.

Therapeutic Touch practitioners, including some in university posts, were deeply unhappy: they insisted loudly that JAMA was wrong to publish the study.

Closer to home is Rhys Morgan, a schoolboy with Crohns Disease. Last year, chatting on www.crohnsforum.com, he saw people recommending “Miracle Mineral Solution”, which turned out to be industrial bleach, sold with a dreary conspiracy theory to cure Aids, cancer, and so on.

Aged 15, he was perfectly capable of exploring the evidence, finding official documents, and explaining why it was dangerous. The adults banned him. Since then he’s got his story on the One Show, while the Chief Medical Officer for Wales, the Food Standards Agency and Trading Standards have waded in.

People wring their hands over how to make science relevant and accessible, but newspapers hand us one answer on a plate every week, with the barrage of claims on what’s good for you or bad for you: it’s evidence based medicine. If every school taught the basics – randomised trials, blinding, cohort studies, and why systematic reviews are better than cherrypicking your evidence – it would help everyone navigate the world, and learn some of the most important ideas in the whole of science.

But even before that happens, we can feel optimistic. Information is more easily accessible now than ever before, and smart motivated people can sidestep traditional routes to obtain knowledge, and disseminate it. A child can know more about evidence than their peers, and more than adults, and more than their own teachers; they can tell the world what they know, and they can have an impact.

So the future is bright. And if you’re one of the teachers who stopped a child’s essay from being published, because it dared to challenge your colleagues for promoting the ludicrousness of Brain Gym, then really: shame on you.


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36 Responses



  1. Xenaco said,

    June 4, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    This is a redux of the Hans Christian Andersen fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Facts are facts yet the “ideological” of the world would have you forsake rational thought for faith, feel good or politically correct words.

    Logic and reason should be taught from the earliest ages (kudos to the parents of the youngsters who have their eyes open) instead of ideology of the teachers and professors.

    Great post.

  2. chrisconder said,

    June 4, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    This rings a lot of bells. All around me are adults falling for the BS from BT that a cabinet in a town is the future of the internet. Hundreds of kids are moaning to their parents that they want to do stuff online, whether its gaming, watching videos, socialising or researching, it matters not what they want to do, they CAN’T do it. What passes for broadband in this country is a joke in at least a third of so called ‘digital britain’. The kids know this. If the adults (especially those who have grown up to be councillors and politicians, journalists and such) had been taught properly at school they would use logic and reason instead of falling for telco hype.
    We need fibre. And we need it now, not patched up copper. Moral fibre as well as Optic.
    Ask the kids.

  3. Goblok said,

    June 4, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    I have long thought that statistics, sociology and social psychology are glaring omissions from the national curriculum.

    I first did statistics at university and it cleared a lot of obfuscation and sheer deceit from my perception of the world.

    How much easier would it be for our young people to show the emperor’s nakedness if they had these tools at their disposal?

  4. JerL said,

    June 4, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    Yes! Being an epidemiologist, I’ve often thought about how different our world might be if high school biology students had a module to learn about RCTs, cohort and case-control studies. It would help both in terms of better understanding medical science and in terms of general critical thinking.

  5. Daibhid C said,

    June 4, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    The best bit about the Emily Rosa case isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article; it led to the Theraputic Touch practicioners winning the Ig Nobel Prize for Education “for encouraging young people to think about science”.

  6. brazzy said,

    June 5, 2011 at 8:41 am

    @Xenaco:
    The problem is that the avid believers in homeopathy, earth rays and faith healing are often deeply convinced *they* are the child pointing out the emperor’s new clothes and the scientific establishment is trying to hush them because of idelogy.

    The fable is not really very useful as a role model because everyone things the things they believe in are obvious and clearly visible, otherwise they would not believe those things.

  7. stinkychemist said,

    June 5, 2011 at 11:07 am

    I agree with brazzy.

    JerL, you’ve maybe never met any real children in a classroom. Remember that, ideally, you would have to train every pupil to recognise bullshit or you have the same problem, that a majority will fall for anything. See Hitler’s quote about “a big lie”.
    Or pop into my Y7 classroom, where two of the pupils are reading advanced physics for fun, while another is shouting “Hey, Annie, I know who your boyfriend is”, while I am trying to teach sampling with quadrats.

    @Chrisconder
    We’re off topic, but I recently wondered about the broadband stuff, living, as I do, in a populous suburb of the fourth largest city in the Kingdom and yet still unable to get more than a megabit. That is, we all await BT doing the things that will speed this up. AND so do all of the parasitic alternatives. Virgin and Sky daily advertise 20 megabit lines (“subject to availability”), that they can’t actually supply, since there is nothing more than copper pairs on my road. They won’t take the risk of installing fibre or “cable”, in case nobody wants it. They’d rather leave that risk to BT. Typical British under-investment, but not necessarily by BT alone.

  8. Cardinal Fang said,

    June 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Ben – I think it would be good if you reproduced the 13-year old’s article in the column one week.

    We should be encouraging not silencing youngters to evaluate evidence and expose quackery. If the school paper doesn’t want to publish it – fine. Bring it into the Nationals!!!

  9. kryptykfysh said,

    June 5, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    My daughter came up with a cracking one. At a skeptics meeting where the statistics on death rates being significantly lower in areas where certified medical practitioners were either absent or on strike.

    The numbers seemed to support the hypothesis. Her question: “If there are no doctors, who is declaring the time of death?”

    Turns out, she was right. With no doctors, there were no death certificates, hence, no deaths. We couldn’t see the wood for the trees. :)

  10. bladesman said,

    June 6, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Good post, but what does Whitney Houston have to do with it?!!

  11. irishaxeman said,

    June 6, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    In the school where I work, asking questions about scientifically bankrupt fads is deemed “awkward and counterproductive”. I have openly questioned, at staff meetings, stuff like Brain Gym, left/right brain, using only 10% of the brain, learning styles and so on. I have been told ‘that’s a valid opinion’ to which I replied ‘ no, it’s the conclusion of valid scientific research’; either the topic moves on or I am asked to remain quiet. Having a masters degree and years of practice in the relevant area means nothing faced with a 28 year old freshly promoted potential headship candidate on fast-track. The heads of department in science and maths have both had similar run-ins over ‘woo’ educational practices.
    As I teach Post 16, I often discover that the students know much of the stuff is rubbish from an early age, and they provide some eye-watering anecdotes.

  12. angrysoba said,

    June 6, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Apologies if this has been posted, but have you seen this?

    Andrew Wakefield is joining a bunch of conspiracy theorists such as 9/11 Truthers Richard Gage and Luke Rudowski along with Alan Watt the climate change denier, some bloke talking about the evil of flouride and F. William Engdahl, a Lyndon LaRouchite.

    www.sovereignindependent.com/?p=16249

    Wakefield seems to be doing the Alex Jones circuit these days. To think that some mainstream media types bought into his bullshit.

  13. schaff said,

    June 6, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Since you mentioned teaching the basics, I was very disappointed by C4′s Embarrassing Bodies:

    www.channel4.com/programmes/embarrassing-bodies-live-from-the-clinic/4od#3191236

    They asked a panel of teenagers to rate the face soap they had been testing by essentially asking them “how did it work for you?”

    Here was a perfect opportunity to help teenagers understand how science/modern medicine works in an clear, easy and fun way. They could, for example, have got them to wash half their face with normal soap, and half with the tested product, and then rate the difference (no blinding, but it’s a start).

    A great opportunity to teach basic principles in a practical way, missed. (I complained)

  14. NeilW said,

    June 6, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    It’s hardly surprising that we have schools falling for this stuff when we still allow them to have religious affiliations.

  15. Zod said,

    June 6, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    I heartily second Cardinal Fang’s suggestion.

  16. purplepolecat said,

    June 6, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    “They could, for example, have got them to wash half their face with normal soap, and half with the tested product, and then rate the difference (no blinding, but it’s a start).”

    That could have hilarious consequences:
    xkcd.com/700/

  17. MedsVsTherapy said,

    June 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Ha, ha, ha! Those silly, unscientific people! how foolish.

    The planetary temps have been stable? The arctic still has ice? Just you wait!

    All of that heat is latent in the ocean. Yeah, that’s the story. Latent heat in ocean.

    Just wait until it upwells. Then, you will FINALLY see global temps rise.

    How dare anyone question the prognostication that sometime in the future the planet will warm! We just have not yet figured out the date!

  18. Emmy said,

    June 8, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I can only imagine how this must tick off adults, especially the ones whose only pride is that they’re smarter than a 6th grader. Of course “indulging” kids in their play-adult science games is fine, and maybe overindulgent adults (is there any other kind these days, at least in the United States?) will stretch science to lend validity to those darn kids. Of course it doesn’t help that many adults themselves are scientifically illiterate. Which is why it’s unlikely that scientific method can’t be taught in the classroom.

    I’ve been saying for years that journal articles should be shown to high school students and that they learn how to read the primary literature.

    It’s a funny coincidence too because I just wrote about 2 teens who spotted bull*** and took a large organization (girl scouts) to task on an environmental policy. Strong young women – I hope they crush organization to smithereens with their high heels one day.

  19. wallrunn3r said,

    June 8, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    @schaff

    I too watched that debacle on C4′s Embarrassing Bodies.

    As if the question “how did it work for you?” was not vague and un-scientific enough, when the aforementioned teenagers responded with their opinions on how the products did not work, Dr. Pixie’s response was to correct them along the lines of “Oh, well you just need to keep using it and you should see results.”

    In fact, in the conculsion of the piece, Dr. Pixies ‘Top Five’ products from the test contained three products that had received negative feedback from the reviewers!

  20. slartibartfast said,

    June 9, 2011 at 7:53 am

    @bladesman
    First line “I believe that children are our future…” then I had to stop the video because my ears started to bleed. Not a Whitney fan as you will gather …prefer something more along the lines of “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control….”

  21. mosul said,

    June 9, 2011 at 11:19 am

    @ irishaxeman

    love it. i think we must work in the same school. or maybe just the same education system.

    @everyone who wants to add more stuff to the curriculum

    I recently read an education journal asking the question;

    We constantly hear for requests for more subjects to be put onto the curriculum, does anyone dare request some to be taken off.

    The response by Mr Benezet was to remove arithmetic from the curriculum and teach primary students how to reason. According to his results the product was increased mathematical ability and better general knowledge than the traditionally educated. All this happened in 1930′s. Nice to see that we are still having the same discussions.

    see
    www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/sanjoy/benezet/1.html

  22. emperor42 said,

    June 10, 2011 at 1:43 am

    But if you look at Rosas wiki page it also says that her mother and father were already members of a anti Therapeutic Touch group. im not saying im for these people it looks like a load of rubbish, but it does show the possibility of bias…

  23. The Devil In The Details said,

    June 10, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Sure some of this, such as the response of the Therapeutic Touch nurses, is simply down to protecting their income and livelihoods.

    As for the Brain Gym exponents in the staff room …

  24. heavens said,

    June 11, 2011 at 2:02 am

    I wonder if the student or teacher would mind identifying the school or even general area that the school is in.

  25. mikewhit said,

    June 13, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Then surely, if Brain Gym is so expensive for no value, it should be top of the Cuts list ?
    Is there no NIEE (National Institute of Educational Effectiveness or whatever …)

  26. Ronlavine said,

    June 14, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Okay, it sounds like Brain Gym has been mis-sold. I can buy that.

    But I’m curious in general about the role that movement and movement learning plays in what we generally consider “cognition”.

    We know that the brain isn’t just sitting there waiting to hatch a thought. There’s constant feedback from mechanoreceptors and other interoceptors that contribute to a background central nervous system state from which “cognition” emerges.

    Forget brain gym, but I’d rather send my child to a school that teaches yoga, t’ai ch’i and tango alongside of math and science. I believe these activities can change the central state of the brain.

    Ron Lavine www.yourbodyofknowledge.com

  27. WilliamJay said,

    June 25, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    @MedsVsTherapy said,
    June 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm
    “Ha, ha, ha! Those silly, unscientific people! how foolish. The planetary temps have been stable? The arctic still has ice? Just you wait!
    All of that heat is latent in the ocean. Yeah, that’s the story. Latent heat in ocean.
    Just wait until it upwells. Then, you will FINALLY see global temps rise.
    How dare anyone question the prognostication that sometime in the future the planet will warm! We just have not yet figured out the date!”

    I’m in the market for a new crowbar, yours seems most serviceable, do you mind telling us where you purchased it?

  28. webbrr said,

    June 29, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    As a Biology teacher I often use Bad Science posts and book as reference / extended reading material.

    Evaluation is a high level skill. Most students of GCSE age find it difficult to follow an objective, scientific approach to data, as do a, not unsignificant, number of A level students. We forget that as a teenager, we do not have the experience or objectivity that can be expected in a science graduate. Schools are trying very hard, but it is not easy to put old heads on young shoulders. Give us a break!

  29. Chinton said,

    July 15, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Sadly Crohn’s Disease gets targetted for all sorts of quackery – it is a devastating illness and causes a lot of pain and there is no cure. People will try anything if they think it might work. Thanks for posting the link to Rhys Morgan’s work – I’m going to pick it up for my blog (on Crohn’s).

  30. skipmeester said,

    August 10, 2011 at 9:29 am

    This reminds me of the time when I was 12, and we were given a maths problem. Not a very difficult one, but there was a tricky bit. Everybody got the wrong answer, except me, and one of my friends. But because the teacher got the same wrong answer as the other kids, he decided that they were all right and we were wrong. We tried to explain to him (remember, this is a teacher) how we got to the answer. He sort of listened, and in the end told us that we were just trying to make him look bad. Idiot.

    I’ve never heard of this Brain Gym stuff before I read Bad Science (the book). This is shocking! If they taught this crap when I was in school, my parents would have sued the school.

  31. MedsVsTherapy said,

    August 25, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    “@MedsVsTherapy said,
    June 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm
    “Ha, ha, ha! Those silly, unscientific people! how foolish. The planetary temps have been stable? The arctic still has ice? Just you wait!
    All of that heat is latent in the ocean. Yeah, that’s the story. Latent heat in ocean.
    Just wait until it upwells. Then, you will FINALLY see global temps rise.
    How dare anyone question the prognostication that sometime in the future the planet will warm! We just have not yet figured out the date!”

    william Jay sez:
    “I’m in the market for a new crowbar, yours seems most serviceable, do you mind telling us where you purchased it?”

    Crowbar? Not quite. I had a hockey stick that was very productive. Unfortunately, it got recalled in a Corrigendum.

  32. Seamuscamp said,

    August 27, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    Xanaco (Comment 1) says:
    “Facts are facts yet the “ideological” of the world would have you forsake rational thought for faith, feel good or politically correct words.”

    That is indeed an ideologue speaking. “Facts” too often are the things we believe or the things we happen to know or the things we have misunderstood, bolstered by faith (for example faith in scientific method). No scientist should be unaware of the value judgements that are embedded in all evaluative processes. “Facts” are not necessarily “truths”.

  33. Brain Jim said,

    April 10, 2012 at 6:04 am

    Brain Jim shows Footsie his tough side.

    Footsie: Some people say the science in Dr. Brain Jim’s Special Exercises is all wrong.

    Brain Jim: I couldn’t agree more. Science is wrong wherever you find it. Science has turned so many of our most promising young people into geeks. Brain Jim will be much better once we have eliminated the science altogether.

    Footsie: In your manual you say that processed food conatins no water. Is this correct?

    Brain Jim: I’m glad you pointed that out, Footsie. It is, of course, a mistake. What I meant to say is that processed food contains no Evian water, or water of any other known brand. At best it contains only ordinary tap water, and might even contain water that has been on the ground in a dirty puddle and trodden in by a pig.

    Footsie: And what about fresh fruit and vegetables? Do they contain Evian water?

    Brain Jim: I can tell from your line of questioning that you are an enemy. You wish only to deprive children of the life-giving benefits of Brain Jim. I repeat, you are an enemy. The interview is over.

  34. Jual Bioactiva said,

    October 14, 2013 at 8:21 am

    I think each person is born has a different trend in the use of his brain. there is a dominant brain think, there is also a right brain dominant, or balanced his left and right brain. Knowing early on will give many advantages, left brain dominant will have the option of future kehidupnnya with a dominant right brain, and vice versa.

    jual-bioactiva.blogspot.com

  35. Obat Herbal said,

    October 30, 2013 at 3:22 am

    Brain Gym is still popular in our country, many wearing motivator and public speaker to bring the matter to the audience motivator.
    if you think about it there are many latent potential within each human being. Centuries waiting to be developed, greetings

    www.herbalmedika.com

  36. letsBcivil said,

    February 19, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Out of the mouths of babes. I’m reminded of a school paper my child handed in (about 6th grade) with some trepidation. The teacher did a poorly thought out section on obesity and felt the need to show kids the very unscientific movie, “Supersize Me”. Then they were instructed to write a paper on the subject of childhood obesity. This same teacher was always organizing bake sales and arranging for the kids to sell cake and cookies to other school kids. She used candy as a reward system, etc. So my child wrote her paper about the problem of teachers/schools claiming to address obesity while pushing money making bake sales, candy rewards, birthday treats, having money making junk food machines on the premise and serving ample junk food in the lunch room. The paper included references to a number of scientific papers on childhood obesity rather than a ridiculous movie. It also used science to lambast the showing of such a movie to a group of kids that included some with eating disorders who were already seriously underweight and already fearful of any fats in their diet. My child knew there was a risk in turning this paper in so had me review it. It was well researched, sourced and thought out so I encouraged turning it in. I have no idea what the teacher’s first reaction was but the paper got a top grade. Later a very embarrassed teacher would tell us our child taught the teacher more than the teacher taught the child.

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