Matthias Rath – steal this chapter

April 9th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in africa, alternative medicine, bad science, BANT, book, death, matthias rath, nutritionists | 126 Comments »

imageThis is the “missing chapter” about vitamin pill salesman Matthias Rath. Sadly I was unable to write about him at the time that book was initially published, as he was suing my ass in the High Court. The chapter is now available in the new paperback edition, and I’ve posted it here for free so that nobody loses out.

Although the publishers make a slightly melodramatic fuss about this in the promo material, it is a very serious story about the dangers of pseudoscience, as I hope you’ll see, and it was also a pretty unpleasant episode, not just for me, but also for the many other people he’s tried to sue, including Medecins Sans Frontieres and more. If you’re ever looking for a warning sign that you’re on the wrong side of an argument, suing Medecins Sans Frontieres is probably a pretty good clue.

Anyway, here it is, please steal it, print it, repost it, whatever, it’s free under a Creative Commons license, details at the end. If you prefer it is available as a PDF here, or as a word document here. Happy Easter!

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"Public opinion has moved sharply in favour of assisted suicide, according to a poll for The Sunday Times."

December 20th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, death, statistics, times | 10 Comments »

I was delighted to discover this week that the Times have started an innovative new column entitled “Bad Statistics”. It seems to me to be somewhat lacking in thoroughness. I should like to submit for their consideration an article from the Sunday Times on the 14th of December.

The opening sentence is: “Public opinion has moved sharply in favour of assisted suicide, according to a poll for The Sunday Times.” This opening sentence is, I believe, incorrect. Read the rest of this entry »

From Hampstead to Cape Town

August 26th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in africa, bad science, dangers, death, matthias rath, nutritionists, scare stories | 44 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday August 26th, 2006
The Guardian

What happens if you transplant western ideas like nutritionism, and anti-vaccination panics, into a developing world context? Unfortunately that’s not a thought experiment. Between 600 and 800 people die every day in South Africa from HIV/AIDS, and their government was roundly criticised at last weeks International AIDS conference in Toronto.

Everyone knows that the South African government is headed by a longstanding denialist of the link between HIV and AIDS, Thabo Mbeki, who held back anti-retroviral treatment for many years; but less well known is the fact that his health minster, Tshabalala-Msimang, is also a staunch advocate for weekend glossy magazine-style nutritionism, an ardent critic of medical drugs, and a close associate of a controversial vitamin salesman.

South Africa’s stand at the conference was described by delegates as the “salad stall”, and consisted of some garlic, some beetroot, the African potato, and other vegetable action. Some boxes of Read the rest of this entry »

Mixing medicines

November 11th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, death, herbal remedies, times | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 11, 2004
The Guardian

· Ah, Susan Clark of the Sunday Times (What’s the Alternative?), how I love her. This time she’s giving advice about which natural substances are safe to take with warfarin. First, she bemoans the dearth of research on the subject. Then she ignores the useful stuff in what we do know. “As a simple guideline, patients who are taking warfarin should avoid any natural remedies that have an action on the cardiovascular system.” I have no idea where that idea came from: but warfarin is famous for being interfered with by other drugs. St John’s Wort, for example, is a very popular drug – herb, collection of drugs in a plant, whatever – that reduces the plasma concentration of warfarin, along with phenytoin and rifampicin: that’s not because they’re active on the cardiovascular system, that’s probably because they interfere with liver enzymes, which means it makes them work harder. Those enzymes also break down warfarin, so if they’re working harder, they break down the warfarin more too, so there’s less of it around in your blood, and you’re more likely to have another nasty clot and die. Likewise, ginseng reduces the plasma levels of warfarin, so they shouldn’t be mixed either. And lots of others.

· So: stand by for the kind of nerdy, and usefully boring science story you’ll see in a paper when I am prime minister of the world government. In a recent study, 2,600 patients on warfarin were sent a questionnaire on what alternative therapies they took: 1,360 responded (believe me, that’s a high response rate) and a whole 19.2% of those responders were, it turned out, taking one or more complementary therapies. Ninety-two per cent of them hadn’t thought to mention this to their doctor. Only 28.3% of all respondents had even thought that herbal medicines could interfere with prescription drugs. Because hardly anybody’s telling them. And, the patients who were taking the complementary therapies – the ones you’d hope would be aware of the risks – were even less likely to think they might interfere with prescription drugs (at a statistical significance of P<0.001, which means there’s a one in 1,000 possibility of that finding occurring by chance).

· Now, doctors have a responsibility to ask about alternative therapies. Patients have a responsibility to themselves to volunteer the information. And the PR arm of the alternative therapy industry, the ones who write articles in national newspapers, have a responsibility to know their onions, and share their knowledge.

A royal mess

July 1st, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, dangers, death, herbal remedies, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, references, statistics | 5 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 1, 2004
The Guardian

· I always thought the monarchy was there to remind us that inherited wealth and privilege are alive and well, and to stop us falling into the American trap of imagining that we live in a meritocracy: but apparently it’s there to set the health research agenda. Prince Charles is keen that we should not ignore the experience of the one person he met who got better with the Gerson nutritional regime for treating cancer. Let’s ignore the fact that the American Cancer Society regard it as dangerous; that in two years San Diego county hospitals treated 13 patients with campylobacter sepsis from the Gerson clinic, probably due to the raw calves’ liver injections; that several patients have been admitted comatose with low sodium levels; and that caffeine enemas are jolly dangerous and have been associated with severe colitis, infections and death. No. Let’s focus on the research already done on Gerson. One long-term study of 21 patients (by a naturopath, no less) found that only one was alive five years after treatment. In 1986, researchers found that despite their claims, some patients from the Gerson clinic were not even followed up. There are papers claiming efficacy for nutritional therapy that find a positive effect, but without bothering to give us the figures. Since then, a handful of studies have been done, suggesting a minor positive effect, but the flaws in their methodologies render them worthless.

· Let’s get this straight: research is not difficult, and it doesn’t need a lot of money. Lots of medical research is done by junior doctors, in their “spare time”. Alternative therapists are welcome to research money, but it would be nice if some of the money they get could go towards keeping follow-up records, which doesn’t cost much, and even do some proper statistics. So if you’re a quack and you’re angry about the lack of evidence supporting your ideas, here are some fun ideas for the holidays. Buy How to Read a Paper: The Basics of Evidence-Based Medicine by Trisha Greenhalgh (BMJ Books), an excellent introduction to how research works. It’s even available free online. Make friends with someone in a university or hospital, and you can use their audit department or statistics advisory service to help you design the study, often for free. But please, at least put the figures in your paper. And register your studies on the national database, so we can have a good laugh when you turn up negative findings.

Christmas presents to avoid

December 18th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, death, express, ions, magnets | 3 Comments »

Christmas presents to avoid

Ben Goldacre
Thursday December 18, 2003
The Guardian

· Our spies are everywhere and it seems last week’s ludicrous “salt crystal lamp” is also being sold, of all places, in the Science Museum gift catalogue. Call me a pedant if you will, but I’m not sure it’s entirely to the good of the scientific education of the nation for the the museum to be peddling made-up nonsense that advertises itself thus: “Crystals … cleanse the air by absorbing humidity. The process releases negative ions which neutralise positively charged particles of air pollution, creating the fresh air found by the sea or in the mountains.”

· And so, inevitably, to the Daily Express, this week raving about the Norstar Magnetic Coaster (price £23) on its health pages. “Try putting a glass of water on it,” says the Express, “to expose the water to a magnetic field that helps your body to flush away toxins, or stick the coaster on the side of your bath to improve circulation.” Now, someone mentioned to me at a party the other day that sometimes they didn’t quite understand why the pseudoscience in the products I write about is so wrong, but had always been too embarrassed to say so. Well, OK then, here goes. Blood’s not magnetic: prove it by bleeding yourself onto a plate and waving a magnet around. Magnets don’t affect circulation: prove it by holding one on your skin and looking. And as for this unending nonsense about fields and toxins, I’m afraid that’s so made-up and magical that I wouldn’t even know how to go about designing a kitchen experiment to disprove it.

· I’m sure you all read last week about the case of Reginald Gill, the alternative therapist who fleeced several thousand pounds out of a man who was dying of pancreatic cancer, telling him that cancer was a metabolic disease, and that he could “reverse” it by using his “high frequency therapy” machine. A familiar sounding story. “If you have chemotherapy, you’ll go home in a box,” Gill warned the 43-year-old man. Ten weeks later, the man was indeed dead. And rather more painfully than necessary, having been convinced to stop taking his nasty mainstream morphine painkillers. Was Gill, as has been reported, “one bad apple”? Did this fraudster “give the world of alternative therapy a bad name”? No. Alternative medicine is defined by being a set of practices that cannot be tested, refuse to be tested, or have consistently failed tests. Gill wasn’t one bad apple: he was at the pinnacle of his profession.