Staying beautiful is easy to do

May 1st, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, cosmetics, nutritionists | 7 Comments »

Staying beautiful is easy to do

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 1, 2003
The Guardian

New: Talk about Bad science

· It’s been a great week for Bad Science spotters. Bob Conklin writes in about Seasilver. Kirlian photography of your aura will demonstrate an “increase in energy” after taking it, and just one capful will deliver “EVERY [sic] vitamin, macro mineral, trace mineral, amino acid, enzyme, and bio-element known to man” straight to your system. As Bob says: “I’m not sure I want every enzyme and bio-element known to man in my mouth.”


· Dr Victoria Kaziewicz sends us even more preposterous pseudo-science: “In a book called How to be Beautiful, by Kathleen Baird Murray, you can read that beauty products containing natural ingredients are preferable because naturally occurring substances are irregularly shaped like the substances making up your own body, while manufactured chemicals are perfect spheres.”

“How to stay beautiful” at Amazon

· Dr Cicely Marston writes about an even easier way to stay beautiful. A team from Harvard School of Public Health took six years to find that watching television for an extra two hours a day increased the rate of obesity by 25% in 50,000 women. Magnificently obvious – but possibly less obvious is why they were only looking at women.

· Picky Bad Science Spotter of the Week Award goes to Jennifer Leech, who has been bothered for decades by an issue in The Lord of the Flies. “In the book it says that Piggy has myopia.” “So,” she continues: “how can the children marooned on that island have used his glasses to start a fire?”

· There’s hope on the horizon for the so-called Sars epidemic (versus malaria which kills a million a year, and tuberculosis which kills three million). Richard Spacek sent us a full page ad from Canada’s Saturday National Post from the Dr Rath Health Foundation: “It is a scientific fact that all viruses that have been scientifically investigated can be blocked by specific natural essential nutrients.” The fact that life-saving information “is being withheld from the people of the world is irresponsible and must be stopped immediately”. Never let it be said that I am part of any global conspiracy to suppress this vital information.

Dr Rath health foundation

· And finally thank God that in this cynical world, in Wales, Dewi ap Ifan is still managing to feel optimistic: “Aren’t we all lucky that Sars has arisen in China? Traditional Chinese medicine, herbalism, and acupuncture will have it under holistic control in no time _” Keep the Bad Science coming: you are not alone.

Dr Goldacre will be back next week. Please send your favourite Bad Science to:

Apes and antibiotics

April 17th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cosmetics, herbal remedies, scare stories | 7 Comments »

Apes and antibiotics

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 17, 2003
The Guardian

New: Talk about Bad science

· The terrifying epidemic of inaccurate fear-mongering continues to rage over the Sars virus. Dominik Diamond of the Daily Star blames you, the general public, for creating the super virus: “We’ve wasted our defences against this, by demanding antibiotics at the mere hint of a sniffle.” Clever boy. Perhaps there’s a GCSE biology student out there who could explain to him why antibiotics only kill bacteria, and not viruses.

· Although we are, of course, right to worry, war is nothing compared to the glorious might of the natural world. Remember: politics killed only between seven and 10 million men and women in the first world war; the influenza epidemic bagged 21 million a year later. Morality is vanity, I tell you. The scientists are fighting a much bigger game.

· And so, with almost painful inevitability, we move on to Crap Cure of the Week. US regulators have ordered the chancers flogging the wonder-pill “Cellasene” to reimburse their customers $12m (£7.6m) over claims, now withdrawn, that their expensive blend of herbs and crushed grape seeds “eliminates” cellulite. I was more interested in their promise of a wholesale personality change, giving me a bottom and thighs that, apparently, I would be “eager to show off”. Thank God you can still buy Cellasene Forte in Boots at only £29.99.

· If only the Cellasene salespeople had followed the lead of Elemis, who have just won the Professional Beauty Awards 2003 prize for “Best Marketing and Promotions”. The key to pseudo-scientific cosmetics marketing is, as they demonstrate, to generate publicity material that means nothing and to steer well clear of testable hypotheses: “We use Absolutes, the purest form of living energy . . . Elemis plant essential oils are most potent and . . . have an immense capacity for oxygenating the skin.” Sold.

· And finally, we turn to the extraordinary letters pages of the Daily Mail, whose reactionary Victorian values seem to go well beyond the family: “Evolution is absurd. Are there any scientists who still believe in it?” Gulp. And, most terrifyingly: “If man evolved from apes, why are there still apes around?”

Dr Goldacre will be back next week.

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Be Very Afraid: The Bad Science Manifesto

April 3rd, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, cosmetics, MMR, nutritionists, quantum physics, religion | 6 Comments »

Be very afraid

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 3, 2003
The Guardian

It was the MMR story that finally made me crack. My friends had always seemed perfectly rational: now, suddenly, they were swallowing media hysteria, hook, line and sinker. All sensible scientific evidence was twisted to promote fear and panic. I tried to reason with them, but they turned upon me: I was another scientist trying to kill their baby.

Many of these people were hardline extremists, humanities graduates, who treated my reasoned arguments about evidence as if I was some religious zealot, a purveyor of scientism, a fool to be pitied. The time had clearly come to mount a massive counter-attack.

Science, you see, is the optimum belief system: because we have the error bar, the greatest invention of mankind, a pictorial representation of the glorious undogmatic uncertainty in our results, which science is happy to confront and work with. Show me a politician’s speech, or a religious text, or a news article, with an error bar next to it?

And so I give you my taxonomy of bad science, the things that make me the maddest. First, of course, we shall take on duff reporting: ill-informed, credulous journalists, taking their favourite loonies far too seriously, or misrepresenting good science, for the sake of a headline. They are the first against the wall.

Next we’ll move on the quacks: the creationists, the new-age healers, the fad diets. They’re sad and they’re lonely. I know that. But still they must learn. Advertisers, with their wily ways, and their preposterous diagrams of molecules in little white coats: I’ll pull the trigger.

And the same goes for the quantum spin on government science. I’m watching you all.

And finally, let us not forget the strays, the good scientists who have passed to the dark side. Was it those shares in that drug company, or the lust for fame and glory? Bad scientists, your days are numbered.

If you are a purveyor of bad science, be afraid. If you are on the side, of light and good, be vigilant: and for the love of Karl Popper, email me every last instance you find of this evil. Only by working joyously together can we free this beautiful, complex world from such a vile scourge.

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Dr Goldacre will be back next week