Office Hours

April 18th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, letters | No Comments »

Helen Pidd
Monday April 18, 2005
The Guardian

· WPM arrives this week sheepish, tail guiltily between her legs. For, for the first time ever, we must begin with a correction. Not just any old correction, either, but one initiated by the Guardian’s biologychemistryandphysics ombudsman. Who? Why, Dr Ben Goldacre of the legendary Bad Science column, of course, who writes offering friendly advice relating to an item in last week’s column. Seven days ago, you’ll remember, we were singing the praises of an ingenious inflatable toilet soon to hit the open market. Science dunce here breezily stated it would be just fine to plug in the device to your office wall socket, instead of a car cigarette lighter as per the instructions. (So you didn’t have to ask your line-manager for a loo break, see?) A bad idea, apparently. Dr Goldacre explains: “As your doctor, I would seriously recommend not putting your naked arse on a 12V device plugged in to a 240V socket. bx”

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 »

Brain sensitising

October 28th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, letters, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, placebo, references | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 28, 2004
The Guardian

· Generally, I don’t go for the little guys. But when the seventh copy of the Brain Respiration leaflet arrived in the Bad Science mailbag, I knew it was a serious moneyspinner: a multimillion dollar operation, in fact, with four centres in the UK, and headed by spiritual leader Dr Ilchi Lee, who runs international conferences, attended, he claims, by Al Gore. I don’t know if his doctorate is in neurosciences but he’s certainly made some breakthroughs with his “brain sensitising, brain versatilising, brain cleansing, brain re-wiring, and brain mastering”. Especially since it can “refresh the brain’s energy and help it create new brain cells for stronger brain function”, which is amazing given the conventional wisdom that you don’t make any new brain cells after you’re born. So you might want to protect the few you have left from brain respiration, especially since “this process goes beyond the anatomical layer of the neo-cortex … into the realm of the brain stem (where innate universal awareness is present)… the creativity of the neo-cortex is fully realised through an infinite current of energy”. No way is Dr Ilchi Lee putting an infinite current of energy through my neurons, but he can send me some of those cool brain-shaped gold vibrators off his website for only $90. They’re top of my Christmas list.

· So is there any peer-reviewed journal evidence to back up Brain Respiration? Yes! It’s from the Korea Institute of Brain Sciences (proprietor Dr Ilchi Lee), and it’s published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine. It measured the EEG of children meditating (in the special brain respiration way), and found that meditating kids had EEG findings characteristic of meditation, when compared with a bunch of kids just sitting “relaxing” with some electrodes on their heads, presumably baffled, certainly not meditating, and therefore producing EEG recordings characteristic of kids sitting around in a room. Which goes to show the importance of choosing your control group carefully. There is another paper, which claims to show the effect of brain respiration on stress hormones, but it’s only published in the Korea Institute of Brain Sciences journal, which, little surprise, isn’t carried by my usual academic libraries.

· Just to clarify: meditation is good, Herbert Benson’s excellent papers on the Relaxation Response, the opposite of fight-or-flight, absolutely rule, and you miss out at your peril. But trademarked pseudoscientific nonsense meditation schools are bad, just like all the other backdoors to enlightenment.

Note:

People love to write in and point out that I don’t go after Bad Science in The Guardian, as if I can somehow go over there and force them to publish whatever I want, perhaps following a brief hostage siege. And to the colossal delight of at least 50 people who emailed, Sally Weale, the editor of the Guardian health pages, published the following article a few weeks later:

www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1367824,00.html

Under the headline “It Works!” they gush extensively about how fabulous and scientifically well proven Brain Respiration is, and these ringing endorsements from The Guardian now prominently adorn the advertising material for Brain Respiration. The article includes the memorably untrue line: ” a number of independent studies have also been conducted on BR and the results published in peer-reviewed science journals.”

This, as many of you pointed out, is a demonstrably false fact in a newspaper (rather than, say, a matter of opinion) and deserves a simple correction. I think it’s as weird as you do, I wrote a letter to the letters page, it was ignored. What can I say?

Letters – McKeith

August 26th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, gillian mckeith, letters, nutritionists | 3 Comments »

Gillian McKeith means well

Thursday August 26, 2004
The Guardian

Your criticism of Dr Gillian McKeith is scientifically correct, but medically hazardous (Bad science, August 19).

In criticising her discussion on chlorophyll, and her other moments of “bad science”, are you suggesting that to eat whole, unprocessed foods is potentially damaging? Are you suggesting that the suffering obese people she is trying to help might be better off without her advice? Should they continue to eat chemically ridden, processed, nutrient-less foods?

McKeith is one of the only people on primetime (or anytime) television who advocate a diet that is not based on profit. If you want to criticise someone in the food industry, why not have a go at the companies promoting kids’ cereals with fortified vitamins as a nutritious start to the day, when they are packed with sugar, refined carbohydrates and chemicals?
Marissa-Catherine Carrarini
By email

How right you are that the whole human biological system is beautifully elegant and balanced: I too cannot understand why people feel the need to contrive a crude (and fallacious) alternative. So many seem to be in a rush to return to mediaeval superstition and scholasticism.
Richard Parker
Kew, New Zealand

Letters

June 10th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, letters | 2 Comments »

Pseudo corner

Thursday June 10, 2004
The Guardian

Nigel Calder should know better than to make the assertions he tossed out at the Hay festival (the Guardian, June 3). To state that any new discovery necessarily nullifies previous knowledge is absurd. Every discovery leads to dozens of new problems. And each of those gives rise to a new discovery to solve it.

There is always the possibility of a breakthrough which changes our view on a subject, but those are few. Far, far more common are the discoveries that act as stepping stones to new knowledge. The timbre of Mr Calder’s arguments treads uncomfortably close to the persecution theories and born-before-our-time laments of the quacks and pseudoscientists that Ben Goldacre so laudably works to eradicate in his Bad Science column.
Alex Ball
Baltimore, Maryland, United States

That floaty feeling

June 3rd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, letters, magnets | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 3, 2004
The Guardian

· You won’t be surprised that I get a lot of critical email. This is very embarrassing, but it’s best that I put my hands up and admit it: last week, I was wrong. In my defence, I am a very angry man, but that’s no excuse for getting in a huff and throwing out pejorative statements like “blood is not magnetic” because, as reader Mark van Ments – who may be the pickiest scientist in the world – points out, blood does, like all objects, exhibit diamagnetism (see Letters, page 10). Thanks Mark. What I meant to say is: blood is not ferro-magnetic. Diamagnetism was first thought through 150 years ago: the electrons orbiting an atom, being charged, are going to readjust their orbits when you stick them in a strong magnetic field, as you might expect. But in doing so, they then create their own magnetic field. To be fair [coughs] the effect is so weak that the rest of the world is roughly one billion times less magnetic than a lump of iron but yes, hands up, that doesn’t mean it’s not significant. And, let’s not be in any doubt, the most significant application of diamagnetism research is to allow mankind, and specifically me, to fly, unaided, like Superman.

· People have been levitating chunks of diamagnetic superconductor for years: that’s a bit easier, what with superconductors (unlike me) being specifically designed to let electrons roam around in them unhindered. But I don’t want to fly like Superman through liquid nitrogen; I want to do it where it’s safe to wear my Y-fronts over my corduroy trousers. Objects other than superconductors proved marginally trickier, but in 1991 Beaugnon and Tournier levitated water, and were soon followed by others who levitated liquid hydrogen and frogs’ eggs.

· But most promising is the work of Berry and Geim, who in 1997 levitated practically everything they could get their hands on, from hazelnuts and pieces of pizza to frogs and a mouse. Watching the video of a frog hovering in mid-air is a humbling and weirdly tranquil experience. For the anti-vivisectionists among you there is a film of a levitating strawberry. The basic small levitation set-up, of superconducting magnet with room temperature core, only costs about $100,000. To levitate yourself, you will need a special racetrack magnet of about 40 Tesla in the back garden, a socket in your home capable of providing around 1GW of continuous power consumption, and an extension cable with a 5 million amp fuse. Don’t forget it’s my birthday soon.

Letters

June 3rd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, letters, magnets | 4 Comments »

Strong magnets can affect blood

Thursday June 3, 2004
The Guardian

Although blood does not appear to be magnetic at common levels of magnetism, I believe you are wrong to say it is not affected by magnetism at all (Bad Science, May 27). With a sufficient magnetic field it is possible to levitate any material, including blood, or even an entire frog using magnetism.

As to the medical benefits of using magnetism in this way, apparently the frog suffered no ill effects.
Mark van Ments
By email

Published MMR Letters

December 15th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, channel five, letters, MMR | 4 Comments »

Fears and frustrations over MMR

Monday December 15, 2003
The Guardian

I applaud Ben Goldacre’s efforts to highlight how much scientific evidence is available to prove the safety of the MMR vaccine and how much damage has been done to the public’s confidence in the vaccine by poor understanding of the science behind autism (Never mind the facts, Life, December 11). The threat of a measles epidemic grows ever larger and programmes such as Channel 5′s Hear The Silence only hasten the day when that tragedy occurs. I have an autistic son and yet did not hesitate to have my daughter vaccinated with the MMR vaccine. Even if there was a slight risk with MMR, then the risk is far outweighed by the very real risk of contracting measles.
Ian Derrick
Ulverston, Cumbria

Article continues
As a parent agonising over the MMR booster decision, I’m prepared to consider Andrew Wakefield wrong. But Ben Goldacre seems to blame it all on the press. What influences parents to reject MMR is their personal experiences of autism and those of friends and acquaintances. This leads them to believe autism is increasing and is a serious form of brain damage. Medical establishment claims such as Goldacre’s that “autism is a disorder of communication” are seen as trivialisation, so doctors are trusted less and these personal experiences more. Claims that rising rates of autism are due to people “using the diagnosis more” are seen as a denial of the data. Goldacre symbolises the disconnect between medics and parents. His concern throughout is MMR. Parents’ concern is autism. Put aside who is right; the best way to deal with the hypothetical measles outbreak and to satisfy parents would be to find a non-MMR cause – and better still a cure – for autism.
Bill Cooke
Manchester

I was heartened to read Ben Goldacre’s account of the controversy and that attention was drawn to the poor quality of media coverage. Following the publication of Wakefield’s first Lancet paper, a snowball of conjecture and innuendo has lead us to a wholly unacceptable scenario today where MMR immunisation rates have now fallen to 84% nationally. For this, the tabloid (and some of the broadsheet) press must be held responsible. Their offence is clear: anecdotal and unscientific data has been given credibility by the sheer volume of coverage, while evidence-based factual results refuting the claims have been swept under the carpet. Should this be a surprise to those of us attempting to uphold the integrity of science as a respected and trusted institution, when “80% [of articles in newspapers regarding MMR] were written by non-specialist reporters” between January and September 2002. Reporting the conclusions of such non-reproducible, subjective studies is as irresponsible and dangerous to public health as any potentially rogue element in vaccines.
Prateek Buch
Institute of Ophthalmology

Surely Ben Goldacre’s concerns should lie with the increasingly common practice of peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, in line with the current culture of evidence-based medicine, of publishing small-scale trials which may or may not later be shown to have any scientific validity. If we are to begin to encourage more accurate media reporting of scientific findings, we this is a fundamental issue.
Graeme McAlister
Dalgety Bay, Fife

My friend and colleague, Paul Shattock, criticised by Dr Goldacre, is a pharmacist who has devoted a lifetime to the study of autism disorders and who has his own severely autistic child, now 28. Paul is pro- not anti-immunisation – but in a manner that is safe for the child.

At a Defeat Autism Now conference in May, Andrew Wakefield presented a comprehensive review of all his work, which has been replicated by Dr Krigman. The science was compelling and made all the links between the MMR vaccine and the severe enterocolitis, coupled with autism, identified in some children. The dilemma for parents is: will this severe consequence of vaccination happen to my child and is there any way of avoiding it? The work at Sunderland has, much to my surprise, profound implications for a number of chronic illnesses with which I am involved, including organophosphate poisoning, Gulf war syndrome, and ME-CFS.

Dr Goldacre should attend to the concern and experience of many parents. Epidemiology is no alternative to the careful study of sick children, which has been studiously avoided in this country for reasons that have never been made clear.
(Prof) Malcom Hooper
University of Sunderland

The MMR debate will only cease when there is sufficient statistical data one way or the other. It seems that now, when some 20% of children in this country are not receiving the MMR, but have had all the other vaccinations, is a good time to make such an analysis. Autism is usually evident from 12 to 18 months, so a proportion of those who have not been immunised in the last few years will by now be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Thus a comparison between those who have had the MMR and those who have not can be made. As a grandparent with six grandchildren, only one of whom had the MMR and developed a severe form of autism, maybe as a result of it, but maybe not, I would like to know the answer.
ME Bramwell
Lydney, Glos

The following appeared in Corrections and Clarifications on the 16th December 2003:

The lead letters in yesterday’s paper addressed a recent feature on the MMR vaccine written by Ben Goldacre (Fears and frustrations over MMR, page 17). Unfortunately his first name appeared as Rob (once) and his second name as Oldacre (twice).