Sampling error, the unspoken issue behind small number changes in the news

August 22nd, 2011 by Ben Goldacre in bbc, media, statistics, uncertainty | 18 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 20 August 2011

What do all these numbers mean? “‘Worrying’ jobless rise needs urgent action – Labour” was the BBC headline. They explained the problem in their own words: “The number of people out of work rose by 38,000 to 2.49 million in the three months to June, official figures show.”

Now, there are dozens of different ways to quantify the jobs market, and I’m not going to summarise them all here. The claimant count and the labour force survey are commonly used, and number of hours worked is informative too: you can fight among yourselves for which is best, and get distracted by party politics to your heart’s content. But in claiming that this figure for the number of people out of work has risen, the BBC is simply wrong.

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The BBC have found someone whose cancer was cured by homeopathy

February 23rd, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, homeopathy | 126 Comments »

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have hit the bottom of the barrel. Homeopathy cured my cancer, on BBC News.

How dumb can one company be?

January 10th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bbc, detox, references | 60 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday 10 January 2009

Obviously by now you can interpolate my views on detox: meaningless, symbolic, gimmicky shortlived health gestures with a built-in expiry date, when we could be reading about the NHS’s surprisingly useful website to help you stop smoking (do it now: smokefree.nhs.uk/), or lifestyle pieces on the joys of buying a bike, and making a genuine move to integrate exercise into your daily life for the long term. I’m not trying to bore you. But after a few months of concentrating on dodgy reporting in the media, I had genuinely forgotten how far out a proper fruitcake can get.

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Scientific proof that we live in a warmer and more caring universe

November 29th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, badscience, bbc, independent, mail, media, mirror, times | 170 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
Saturday November 29 2008

As usual, it’s not Watergate, it’s just slightly irritating. “Down’s births increase in a caring Britain”, said the Times: “More babies are being born with Down’s syndrome as parents feel increasingly that society is a more welcoming place for children with the condition.” That’s beautiful. “More mothers are choosing to keep their babies when diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome” said the Mail. “Parents appear to be more willing to bring a child with Down’s syndrome into the world because British society has become increasingly accepting of the genetic abnormality” said the Independent. “Children’s quality of life is better and acceptance has risen”, said The Mirror. Read the rest of this entry »

The certainty of chance

September 6th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bbc, statistics, times | 18 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday September 6 2008

Britain’s happiest places have been mapped by scientists, according to the BBC: Read the rest of this entry »

Dore – the media’s miracle cure for dyslexia

May 24th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, bbc, dore, ITV, miracles | 37 Comments »

How do you judge if an intervention is effective when you hear about it in the media? Perhaps you tot up the balance of opinions. Perhaps you do it unconsciously.

image You might have noticed the Dore “miracle cure” for dyslexia, invented by millionaire paint entrepreneur Wynford Dore. It’s hard to ignore. In fact just recently you may have seen “Strictly Come Dancing” star Kenny Logan – a rugby superhero, with 70 caps in 13 years – promoting the Dore Dyslexia Program with his own personal testimonials on the Jeremy Vine Show, Channel Five News, Radio Five Live, BBC London, ITV Central, ITV Yorkshire, in the Daily Mail, the Daily Record, Scotland on Sunday, and many, many more.

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The amazing disappearing reappearing finger

May 3rd, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, ITV, miracles, sun, telegraph, times | 16 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday May 3 2008

Traditionally on May Day the fool plays at pratfalls and buffoonery around local morris dancers, brandishing his fool’s bauble, an inflated pig’s bladder on a stick, with which he bewitches and controls the crowds. To the uninitiated it looks like chaos, but for his own safety the fool must know the dances as well as anyone, so that his weaving tomfoolery meshes perfectly with the intricate pattern of kicks, handkerchief waving, and stickbashing.

In the newspapers on May Day, meanwhile, journalists were earnestly reporting the news that pig’s bladder extract had been used by scientists in a major breakthrough allowing one man to magically regrow a finger. “‘Pixie dust’ helps man grow new finger,” squealed the Telegraph’s headline. “‘Pixie dust’ makes man’s severed finger regrow,” said the Times. “Made from dried pig’s bladder,” they explained, this magic powder “kick-starts the body’s healing process”. Read the rest of this entry »

“Pixie Dust helps man grow new finger”

May 1st, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, mail, sun, telegraph, times | 34 Comments »

Very briefly – because this kind of thing irritates me so much that I can’t be bothered to devote a great deal of time to it – in almost every single newspaper and media outlet today you will read about the Pixie Dust which helped a man’s finger grow back: “The man who grew a finger” [BBC], “‘Pixie dust’ helps man grow new finger” [Telegraph], “Man’s finger ‘regrown using pig extract’” [ITN], “Sliced finger grows back” [The Sun], etc.

Allow me to explain why I have good grounds to believe that this is nonsense, and that the journalists concerned have failed in the most basic regard.

[NB I gave this story some chat on the Today programme at 7:43am May 2, listen again here]

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Trivial Disputes

February 2nd, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in badscience, bbc, climate change, drurrrgs, independent, telegraph | 46 Comments »

There are no difficult ideas in this column. Like, for example, when I tell you about the Daily Telegraph front page headline which says “Abuse of cannabis puts 500 a week in hospital”, and it turns out they’re actually quoting a figure from a report on the number of people having contact with any drug treatment service of any variety. The colossal majority of these, of course, are outpatient appointments for drugs counselling, not hospital admissions. So there are not 500 people a week suddenly being put into hospital by cannabis. But this is not a news story: like their recurring dodgy abortion figures, it is the venal moralising of a passing puritan, dressed up in posh numbers.

Similarly, there’s nothing very complicated about a report from CNW Marketing in Oregon, which the Independent’s motoring correspondent has now quoted (twice) in his attempt to demonstrate that Hummers, Jeeps, and various other cars the size of a small caravan are – “in fact” – greener than smaller hybrid cars like the Prius. Because readers love a quirky paradox.

CNW, a car industry marketing firm, manage to do this by making calculations over the lifetime of a car. They decide that about 90% of the environmental cost of a car’s lifetime environmental impact is from its manufacture and recycling, not the fuel it burns whilst tootling around. This is the polar opposite of all other life-cycle analyses. CNW include all kinds of funny things to make their numbers work, like the erosion of the road surface of the people who travel to the car factory.

They also decide, for the purposes of their calculation, that people will keep their giant, cyclist-killing Jeeps for twice as long as their green hybrid cars, and if you think that is a leap of faith, they also decide that Prius drivers will travel about half as many miles a year as Jeep drivers.

This may be true if you observe the behaviour of people who choose to buy these cars. But it’s hard to see how it is a factor for anyone making a new purchasing decision, since you’re probably going to drive as much as you’re going to drive, and buying a 4×4 is not suddenly going to turn you overnight into a chubby, middle-class parent driving your children 400 yards to school. Read the rest of this entry »

BBC Editorial Complaints Unit debags the Panorama WiFi scare

November 30th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, electrosensitivity | 16 Comments »

You will remember Panorama’s WiFi program very clearly. Even the children in the school where they tried to film it spotted the problems with their methodology, and they were promptly booted out by a science teacher. I for one found those two little details truly mood enhancing, and you can read the full story here – because here is where you read it first (all the various entries related to the show are listed here). Read the rest of this entry »