The Medicalisation of Everyday Life

September 1st, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, big pharma, celebs, equazen, fish oil, medicalisation, nutritionists | 43 Comments »

As the pace of medical innovation slows to a crawl, how do drug companies stay in profit? By ‘discovering’ new illnesses to fit existing products. But, says Ben Goldacre, in the second extract from his new book, for many problems the cure will never be found in a pill.

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Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
Monday September 1 2008

When you’ve been working with bullshit for as long as I have, you start to spot recurring themes: quacks and the pharmaceutical industry use the exact same tricks to sell their pills, everybody loves a “science bit” – even if it’s wrong – and when people introduce pseudoscience into any explanation, it’s usually because there’s something else they’re trying desperately not to talk about. But my favourite is this: alternative therapists, the media, and the drug industry all conspire to sell us reductionist, bio-medical explanations for problems that might more sensibly and constructively be thought of as social, political, or personal. And this medicalisation of everyday life isn’t done to us; in fact, we eat it up. Read the rest of this entry »

Fame!

August 2nd, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cash-for-"stories", celebs | 15 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
guardian.co.uk
Saturday August 2 2008

It must be August. The Daily Mail is hunting for the Yeti again (they sent their own expedition out in 1954) and mathematical formula season has begun in earnest. PR guru Mark Borkowski’s “fame formula” was gushingly reported in the Telegraph, the Express, the Star, OK, Channel 4, ITN, and more. The Guardian were lucky enough to obtain the rights to extract his book at length, focusing on the formula. I trust the deal permits me also to reproduce large tracts of it here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Atomic tomatoes are not the only fruit

December 16th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in africa, alternative medicine, bad science, celebs, channel 4, channel five, cosmetics, dna, express, gillian mckeith, herbal remedies, independent, letters, mail, MMR, nutritionists, oxygen, penises, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, quantum physics, references, space, statistics, telegraph, times, very basic science, water | 9 Comments »

This article is a rough transcript of the most excellent Bad Science Awards 2004 that were held in the Asylum Club on Rathbone St W1, a tiny basement club with a fire safety license for 150. We were expecting 20 people but to general astonishment there were queues down the street, and an unruly crowd who were drunkenly, loudly, and at one point quite violently baying for Gillian McKeith’s blood. Also performing were the excellently frightening and dangerous Disinformation presents “National Grid”, performance terrorism with victorian electrical equipment and rubber gloves, featuring Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor and Guardian Far Out fame.

Thursday December 16, 2004
The Guardian

Ben Goldacre on the gongs nobody wants to win…

Andrew Wakefield prize for preposterous extrapolation from a single unconvincing piece of scientific data

With its place at the kernel of Bad Science reporting in the news media, this was bound to be a hotly contested category. Were there any Read the rest of this entry »

Reading between the lines

April 22nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, celebs, homeopathy, ions | 2 Comments »

Reading between the lines

Talk about Bad science here

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 22, 2004
The Guardian

· There are times when a boy can feel terribly alone. Like when you’re standing in the medical section of the academic Waterstone’s in London, and you suddenly realise that you’re surrounded by people earnestly browsing 100ft of shelf space devoted to made-up alternative therapies, sandwiched between the orthopaedics and physiology sections. Reader Mark Lorch was there in spirit. “I was horrified by what the Heathrow Terminal One WH Smith considered popular science. While browsing the pop science section I found The Stargate Conspiracy by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince alongside Matt Ridley’s fantastic Genome. And it got worse. Nostrodamus: The Final Prophecies by Luciano Sampietro was perched next to the gripping Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh. And the final irony, Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker sharing a shelf with The Bible Code by Michael Dronsin.” Particularly appropriate, given Dawkins’s attitude to religion. “I ask you, how the hell are people going to tell the difference between real and bad science when that claptrap is peddled next to excellent science books?”

· It’s enough to get you thinking about the nature of science. Critical self-appraisal and careful examination of new ideas might be high on your list of ways in which to develop meaningful theories; alternative therapists, meanwhile, are cheerfully enshrining their inflexible opposition to both in their codes of practice. I give you the code of ethics of the International Society of Professional Homeopaths: “Members must present a united front to the public and should not imply criticism of colleagues, either in writing or before clients or the general public.” Cosy. And the World Chiropractic Alliance’s “guidelines for straight chiropractic” leave little room for discussion: a practitioner’s clinical assessment is “inviolable” and their judgment is “the final authority”.

· Some things are beyond criticism, such as the new Jinlida JLD-2000 Negative Ioniser from China. Breathe in, and feel the words waft over you: “Our all know rub can give birth to electricity … airy molecule rub as well as can electrify … At air minus ion few, is able to gas-bored, feel ill, in a bad skin, easy issue sickness. Air minus ion reply cast iron advantage …” Breathe in again: “Boost up resistance, along with minus ion deepness add, blood serum globin is able to distinctness add; antibody add.” Breathe out deeply; feel the healing poetry of pseudoscience, and repeat: “I believe.”

Water torture

January 15th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in africa, bad science, celebs, homeopathy, times, very basic science, water | 3 Comments »

Water torture

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 15, 2004
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to catch a Sunday Times beauty journalist out. “Harriet Griffey thought bottled water was a con, until mountain-pure H < ->2 O healed her senses.” Let’s stop her right there. I think I can write these things for myself these days. Don’t tell me: water comes in funny “clusters”, which only beauty journalists and the people who make the stuff can detect. You make them smaller with a special secret process, and then they hydrate and absorb toxins better. Oh, and the special water is really expensive (let’s say £13.95 a bottle) but they’ve proved it works with some special science. Which hasn’t been published anywhere. Did I miss anything?

· Let’s just check the inventor’s website. He has an authentically large beard, and the process works “under the principle of implosion and magnetic transfer”. It continues: “This natural magnetic transfer using electromagnetic waves does not come from using magnets or electricity.” Wow, neither? Now that’s impressive. Back to lovely Harriet, in her white chiffon A-line lab coat. “Well, that’s the science _ I am as sceptical as the next person, and am not convinced by hype.” Yes: she’s going to prove it for herself. Experimentally. “Take one lemon. Cut it in half and squeeze each half into two identical glasses. Place one next to a bottle of Blue Water, the other on the opposite side of the room. Wait five minutes, then taste … While the juice in one glass remained wincingly sharp, the lemon in the other, placed next to the Blue Water, was noticeably softer and less tart. Even through glass, the effect of the water is enough to change the taste of the lemon juice.” Head of particle physics on line one for Ms Harriet Griffey.

· Meanwhile, it was a delight to see intellectual Jeanette Winterson, following her recent article on the predictive powers of her favourite astrologer, writing in the Times on Saturday about a project to treat Aids sufferers in Botswana – where 48% of the population is HIV positive – with homeopathy. Some might say it was slightly patronising, unrealistic or even pointless to take your western, patient-empowering, anti-medical establishment and culturally specific placebo to a country that has little healthcare infrastructure, is frequently engaged in a water war with Namibia, and suffers frequent droughts. But we can only guess what the people of Botswana might say.

Chocolate love

January 8th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, celebs, chocolate, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, weight loss | 12 Comments »

Chocolate love

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 8, 2004
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· With painful inevitability, that old chestnut about chocolate’s health-giving properties popped up on the health and women’s pages of almost every newspaper, as is traditional at Christmas. The Daily Express eagerly pointed out that it’s “a good source” of flavanols, antioxidants, magnesium, zinc and iron. And in the Telegraph: “Chocolate is good for you,” says Chloe Doutre-Roussel, chocolate buyer at Fortnum & Mason. “It has minerals such as fluoride for the teeth and potassium, like bananas.” Doutre-Roussel is, we are told, “an ultra-slim Frenchwoman… Although she eats 1lb of chocolate a day, she weighs a mere 7st 12lb.” Mars, which has been lavishing money on research into the benefits of chocolate for 10 years now, started this tradition five years ago, employing PR consultancy Grayling Healthcare to send out press releases such as “Media Alert: News for Chocolate Lovers this Christmas”.

So, whatever the truth is about minerals, the manufacturers of Galaxy and Milky Way must have been disappointed by recent research showing that what few antioxidants there are in cocoa beans are hardly absorbed from milk chocolate at all. Manufacturers first flaunted chocolate’s healthiness during food shortages after the first world war, and only stopped when we started measuring and labelling the contents. Just as that process got going, the 1930 Food and Drug Review said: “The magic words ‘health giving’ are today the most overworked and loosely applied in the advertising lexicon.” – 74 years ago.

· The Mail on Sunday’s “integrated health expert” Dr Ali was busy this week writing about headaches. “The skull,” he claims, “contracts and expands a dozen times or so each minute to push the [cerebrospinal] fluid round, but tight neck muscles and misaligned skull bones can disrupt this process.” You don’t need to be a doctor like Ali – whose clients include Prince Charles and Geri Halliwell – to know that the skull is a rigid box of bone and, since you asked, the fluid is kept moving by the waving movements of cilia lining the ventricles, respiratory and arterial pulsations, postural changes and the pressure gradient between the places where it’s made and reabsorbed. Ali, despite qualifying in Delhi and Moscow, is not registered with the General Medical Council because, his website informs us, “the treatment which he personally provides uses massage, diet, yoga and natural supplements and oils which do not need prescription”. Why not rob a bank and visit him anyway, at his “Integrated Health Centre”, just off Harley Street.

The homeopaths strike back

October 2nd, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, celebs, dna, homeopathy, magnets, placebo, very basic science | 5 Comments »

The homeopaths strike back

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 2, 2003
The Guardian

· You probably don’t have to be a physics expert like bad science spotter Professor Donald Simanek to spot that the new £2 coin, celebrating our scientific heritage, has an odd number of gears interlocking around the edge, creating a system that could not possibly turn.

· Down at Tower Bridge, illusionist David Blaine has genetically modified supermen working on his security team. They only got worried about people shining laser pointers at Blaine because, as one of them told the Daily Mirror: “In America a dot of light means someone’s aiming a gun at you using an infrared sight.” That’s “infrared” as in below the range of human vision.

· Meanwhile, according to Jack Straw, speaking in parliament last week, Iraq is a difficult place to find weapons of mass destruction in because it’s twice the size of France. That’s presumably the same Iraq that is 437,072 sq km, as opposed to France, which is (according to the, er, CIA World Factbook) 547,030 sq km.

· But there’s more. Writing about the unbelievably excellent Henry Wellcome artefacts exhibition at the British Museum, Time Out tells us about “a lock of George III’s hair that is undergoing DNA analysis to determine whether the king was, in fact, mad”. Looks like psychiatrists are out of a job, then: perhaps his DNA could tell us if he was bad and dangerous to know too?

· And just in case you thought I was going to give complementary therapy bashing a rest this week, may I proudly offer you the fantastic randomised control study from this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association which shows that magnet therapy does not work for heel pain. That’s one quack cure down, only 5,363,672 to go.

· One last thing. I have received, from the director of the Society of Homeopaths, what is possibly the longest letter ever written to any newspaper on any subject. How any alternative therapist who has ever read a newspaper in Britain could possibly claim that they get a bad deal, considering that dark ages superstition has now become the contractually-enforced journalistic norm, baffles me, but in the spirit in which this epic letter was clearly intended I present it here diluted one part in one hundred thousand, in the vain hope that it has more impact on you than it does on me: “Placeb…”

Let’s hear it for Jewel

August 21st, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, celebs, mail, quantum physics | 2 Comments »

Let’s hear it for Jewel

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 21, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· It was a pleasure to find Jewel, the “raunchy dance diva with an interest in atomic physics”, pontificating on science in the Daily Telegraph. Its correspondent could barely contain his excitement as she teasingly began to reveal her “research into super-string theory”. Watch her run with renaissance studies: “Empirical knowledge began to reign supreme – knowing something through truth and fact and experiment, instead of spiritual and religious implication.” It’s looking good. Her eyes are “shining with enthusiasm”. Hit me with the facts, Jewel. “In super-string theory and unified theory they have to answer mystical questions again… they’re saying that alchemical experiment is affected by the observer. It’s coming back to… What is the creative force in the universe? Because they’re seeing that there is one.” Quite.

· I’d be a bigger fan of Jewel and her admirers at the Telegraph if only they’d followed the lead of the Australian Daily Telegraph, a Murdoch tabloid, which this week printed the first photograph of a whale farting. It’s a veritable depth charge – and the best reason I can think of for saving the Minke whale, if only for its military potential.

· The US government’s national centre for complementary and alternative medicine funds respectable work into stress and heart conditions. But I fear it’s in danger of overstretching itself in taking part in the “rapid response grant programme on bioterrorism-related research”. Inviting grant proposals, the centre says: “We encourage applications for innovative research targeted at testing complementary and alternative medicine therapeutic or preventive agents for pathogens that might conceivably be vehicles for biological warfare activities.”

· Anyone going for the cash and glamour of military research just because science isn’t rock and roll enough should pay more attention to the Atkins diet saga. For the first time a theory is being treated like a celebrity: the Daily Mail has portrayed low-carbohydrate Atkins as the saviour of modern womankind, especially after a study showed people lost, err, 4% more weight on it, with no health complications after, umm, a whole six months. Now, after an equally trivial trial, no, in fact, a passing comment from one “expert”, who, it transpired this week, has links to the Flour Advisory Board (of all the sinister carbohydrate peddlers in the world) it is suddenly a potential killer. Not even George Best was booted off his pedestal so quickly.

Watch out, Caplin’s about

July 31st, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, celebs, homeopathy, nutritionists, religion | 3 Comments »

Watch out, Caplin’s about

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 31, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· Browsing through the August edition of Marie Claire, looking for preposterous cosmetics ads I hasten to add (stand by for next week), what could be more delightful for the noble bad-science spotter than to come across a photo story about Cherie Blair, also featuring her great friend and aide, New Ager Carole Caplin. Cherie seems much more relaxed around Caplin, Marie Claire reports, and “a homeopathic tincture stands on the table”. “Miss Caplin is back, looming over her to touch up her lipstick,” the journalist writes. Run, Cherie, run!

· It’s possible you don’t know just how bad science Caplin’s world is. Here is a brief tour. When Cherie was suffering with swollen ankles, Caplin introduced her to “Jack Temple, Homeopathic Dowser Healer”, as his website says. Here is Jack on cramp: “For years many people have suffered with cramp. By dowsing, I discovered that this is due to the fact that the body is not absorbing the element ‘scandium’ which is linked to and controls the absorption of magnesium phosphate.” And on general health complaints: “Based on my expertise in dowsing _ I noted that many of my patients were suffering from severe deficiencies of carbon in their systems. The ease in which people these days suffer hairline fractures and broken bones is glaringly apparent to the eyes that are trained to see.”

· Being a devout Catholic, Cherie might want to bear in mind the Vatican’s “Christian Reflection on the New Age” document released a few months ago. At the time, Cardinal Poupard said you’d be better off believing in “encounters with aliens” than New Age “weak thinking”. And the Vatican should know: they’ve got a committee of scientists retained to make certain that miracles are inexplicable by modern science before they make you a saint.

· Caplin also once worked for the 5,000-strong cult Exegesis, who were accused of brainwashing, and who recruited people by saying that its therapy methods could solve personal problems. David Mellor, then a Home Office minister, condemned the organisation as “puerile, dangerous and profoundly wrong” and it was investigated by the police (although no charges were ever brought). Its leader was a Rolls Royce driving businessman, the son of a meat salesman from Essex who changed his name from Robert Fuller to Robert D’Aubigny.

Hollywood science

July 24th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, celebs, very basic science | 4 Comments »

Hollywood science

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 24, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· It is possible to be too rational. So there I was, having a quiet hungover moment with a friend at the weekend, watching Honey I Shrunk The Kids with his daughter, when suddenly he could take it no more. “Surely if pressure is proportional to force divided by surface area, and the area of their feet is proportional to the square of their dimensions, then shrinking a human by a factor of 100 will increase the pressure per square inch exerted by their feet by a factor of 10,000.” Milly, having clearly dealt with similar issues on many previous occasions, didn’t even bother to look up from the screen. “From 2 psi (per sq inch) to 20,000 psi, sufficient to break concrete,” continued her father, triumphantly. “They get lighter too, dad,” she mumbled. “Well even if that’s true, their surface area to volume ratio has increased so much that they should be freezing to death. And their legs would snap, since the strength of a structure is also proportional to the cross sectional area.”

· Now, the international superweb being what it is, you are never alone, no matter how deviant you are. And so I am proud to be able to present you with our big find of the weekend, the Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics Pages (www. intuitor.com/moviephysics/). It’s their indignation that makes it such good fun. For example, from their review of Star Wars: “In the great battle scene, the bad guys drive up in giant tanks and attempt to blast the good guys who are protected by their force field. This force field is transparent to visible light but nevertheless repels blasts of visible laser beams.” And they reserve particular derision for spaceships exploding in space (where there is no air, and no one can hear you scream) and the fact that you cannot only see it, but also hear it, with the sound waves miraculously arriving not just through a vacuum but at the same time as the light.

· But it gets worse. Proper little Rottweilers, these physicists, and they follow through on the maths. People flying backwards when hit by bullets? Not when the velocity of the victim will be equal to the velocity of the bullet multiplied by the ratio of the mass of the bullet to the mass of the victim – 0.4 miles an hour, they reckon. Copper-plated bullets flashing off steel? They snort with laughter. And 1,000 rounds a minute from a gun, for three minutes, works out at 45kg of metal. So where are the henchmen with the wheelbarrows full of ammunition? And now ask yourself, will the world be a better place when we are in charge? Of course it will be.