Snot a problem

July 29th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, express, mail, nutritionists, oxygen, very basic science | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 29, 2004
The Guardian

· Mainstream science is, of course, not above reproach. We all know about the dangers of publication bias, where only positive findings get reported, and the negative ones get left in desk drawers; and, of course, sometimes cheeky souls quote papers selectively, to bolster their own agenda. Like the Daily Mail. This week it reports a trial, by the “Institute for Optimum Nutrition”, showing that bone mineral density is preserved in postmenopausal women taking soy milk, because “soy protein and its isoflavones – natural compounds that have a weak, oestrogen-like effect – are good for bones, but until now there has not been an investigation of long-term effects in humans”. It must be news because these gentle, natural isoflavones have, so they say, until now, been callously ignored by patriarchal medical science. Although only if you disregard a very similar but far larger trial, which found that soy supplements do not protect against postmenopausal changes. It was published several weeks previously in Jama, the most important and well read medical journal in America. I didn’t see the findings of that study reported in the newspapers.

· After our cream last week that kills “every known bacteria”, the Daily Express reports that Kleenex is launching an antiviral wipe that can “check the spread of colds and flu”, with chemicals on the middle layer of a three-ply tissue destroying “99.9% of the germs that lay millions low across the nation”. Only 99.9% this time? “This is an incredible breakthrough,” says Kleenex’s spokesman, Dr Winkler Weinberg. “But,” the Express warns, “some scientists fear it could weaken the immune system and trigger the growth of superbugs.” Yikes! That certainly makes it sound jolly potent. Which scientists were they, the ones who keep giving each other colds by sharing disposable tissues covered in snot? Since most of us prefer to catch our colds from the air droplets out of coughs and sneezes, I don’t think we need to be too worried about the Kleenex superbugs just yet.

· Finally, something fishy from the August edition of She magazine, via reader Joanna Franks: “Marketed as an energy booster, HealthAid’s Concentrated Air-Oxy (£9.99) is also effective against jet lag. The drops contain negatively charged oxygen particles that, when added to a glass of water and drunk, supply extra oxygen to the tissues and thus combat tiredness.” Only if you’ve got gills.

Bin the pills, eat your greens

May 6th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, express, nutritionists, references | 5 Comments »

Bin the pills, eat your greens

Talk about Bad science here

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 6, 2004
The Guardian

· It’s a simple universe for nutritionists, with a small number of fundamental laws from which all other facts derive. Antioxidants are good; stimulants are bad; laboratory studies on rat metabolism are proof of the need to spend £50 a week on pills. The only problem is, there’s practically nothing in the huge body of contradictory research on nutrition to recommend anything other than “eat your greens”, and you don’t need a journalist, or a scientist, or an expensive nutritionist to tell you that. Meanwhile, John Triggs in the Daily Express was riffing off this week, telling children to “boost their brain” for exams, using iron: “premium brain fuel”.

· I doff my hat to anyone who can make out that iron-deficiency anaemia is a greater cause of poor concentration in young people than lack of exercise and too much TV; and I’m delighted to be receiving nutritional advice from a man who tells us that thiamine – otherwise known as vitamin B1 – is a “mineral”. Perhaps it’s a special alternative thiamine mineral, mined from the viscous thiamine mountains in south India. Either way, it “helps build concentration” so get chewing. Or try “Marmite, peas, bread, oranges, eggs and pasta.” Thanks John; it never occurred to me to eat any of that stuff until you mentioned the thiamine.

· If you want to pass some exams, forget the Marmite and have a cup of evidence-based coffee. I realise any nutritionist would look at me like I’d just suggested injecting cocaine and PCP into the veins on my penis, but hey, if you want to play selective paper quoting, a recent Norwegian study found that coffee contributed 11 millimoles (mmol) of their subjects’ 17mmol daily intake of antioxidants: 1.8 mmol came from fruit and 0.4 mmol from vegetables. And a paper this week showed that antioxidant vitamin supplements (taken by 10m Britons) interfere with liver function and might cause heart attacks. Bin the pills and eat your greens.

· Don’t believe anyone who tells you caffeine is bad. Just makes you a bit bad tempered. Better than those ridiculous pills anyway. Decadence, I tell you. Lazy fat westerners, who know deep down that their lifestyles are predicated on the exploitation of people in countries where there really are nutritional deficiencies, bleating on about how they too are deficient, in, “umm, selenium and thiamine”, and stuffing their faces with pills when they should be ordering a salad. I’ll say it again: eat your greens. Er, and maybe avoid too much coffee.

Bin the pills, eat your greens

May 6th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, express, nutritionists | 2 Comments »

Bin the pills, eat your greens

Talk about Bad science here

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 6, 2004
The Guardian

· It’s a simple universe for nutritionists, with a small number of fundamental laws from which all other facts derive. Antioxidants are good; stimulants are bad; laboratory studies on rat metabolism are proof of the need to spend £50 a week on pills. The only problem is, there’s practically nothing in the huge body of contradictory research on nutrition to recommend anything other than “eat your greens”, and you don’t need a journalist, or a scientist, or an expensive nutritionist to tell you that. Meanwhile, John Triggs in the Daily Express was riffing off this week, telling children to “boost their brain” for exams, using iron: “premium brain fuel”.

· I doff my hat to anyone who can make out that iron-deficiency anaemia is a greater cause of poor concentration in young people than lack of exercise and too much TV; and I’m delighted to be receiving nutritional advice from a man who tells us that thiamine – otherwise known as vitamin B1 – is a “mineral”. Perhaps it’s a special alternative thiamine mineral, mined from the viscous thiamine mountains in south India. Either way, it “helps build concentration” so get chewing. Or try “Marmite, peas, bread, oranges, eggs and pasta.” Thanks John; it never occurred to me to eat any of that stuff until you mentioned the thiamine.

· If you want to pass some exams, forget the Marmite and have a cup of evidence-based coffee. I realise any nutritionist would look at me like I’d just suggested injecting cocaine and PCP into the veins on my penis, but hey, if you want to play selective paper quoting, a recent Norwegian study found that coffee contributed 11 millimoles (mmol) of their subjects’ 17mmol daily intake of antioxidants: 1.8 mmol came from fruit and 0.4 mmol from vegetables. And a paper this week showed that antioxidant vitamin supplements (taken by 10m Britons) interfere with liver function and might cause heart attacks. Bin the pills and eat your greens.

· Don’t believe anyone who tells you caffeine is bad. Just makes you a bit bad tempered. Better than those ridiculous pills anyway. Decadence, I tell you. Lazy fat westerners, who know deep down that their lifestyles are predicated on the exploitation of people in countries where there really are nutritional deficiencies, bleating on about how they too are deficient, in, “umm, selenium and thiamine”, and stuffing their faces with pills when they should be ordering a salad. I’ll say it again: eat your greens. Er, and maybe avoid too much coffee.

Alternative medicine on the NHS?

February 12th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, brain gym, express, penises | 5 Comments »

Alternative medicine on the NHS?

Ben Goldacre
Thursday February 12, 2004
The Guardian

· Well, last week’s chemicals with rude names certainly tapped a rich seam. There are some species names that Carl Linnaeus would have been proud of. So, it’s hard to imagine the story behind how we ended up with a leiodid beetle “Colon rectum”, let alone the scarab “Enema pan”. Linnaeus himself named a pink-flowered butterfly pea “Clitoria mariana”, presumably after a special friend, as well as calling a stinkhorn “Phallus”. Someone somewhere is a big fan of the Sex Pistols, as well as trilobytes, calling a group of them Arcticalymene viciousi, A rotteni, A jonesi, A cooki & A matlocki, Agra vation (beetle), Lalapa lusa (tiphiid wasp), and back to the 80s with Aha ha (sphecid wasp). Whoever said scientists were boring?

· Meanwhile, the Sunday Express continues fearlessly to rewrite the science books. “Disogenine is an element,” Hilary Douglas says, “that can be turned into cortisone, oestrogen, or progesterone.” You can get it from dried yams. Bear with me. Synthetic chemicals, apparently, are “invasive”, not half as good for you as “natural” progesterone, which she seems to imagine your body could distinguish from the effectively identical progesterone in HRT pills. Vegetables are “very alkali”, which is apparently a good thing because acid sounds bad, I guess. Apparently, these “very alkali” vegetables will have some kind of beneficial effect on the movement of calcium across bone cell membrane. Oestrogen will weaken bones, rather than the other way round…and why do I care? Because this newspaper hangs its lead editorial, demanding funding for expensive alternative therapies on the NHS, on this meandering litany of half-truths and fantastical misunderstandings. The day that serious government health policy is influenced by such works of fantasy…Blair guru Carole Caplin in the Mail on Sunday continues her campaign against EU plans to force alternative therapy peddlers to put proper ingredients labels on its products and get licences for the dangerous ones. Be afraid.

· But, the smiling face of a cheeky kid shines like a ray of sunshine into these dark days: “I’d like to submit the revision advice of my teacher. She claims that because the brain works by transmitting electricity through water, drinking more water will improve mental performance.” Sounds like those www.braingym.org pseudoscientists are taking in gullible teachers again. The joy of science: you don’t have to be big to be clever.

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.

It feels like crystal

December 11th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, express, ions, nutritionists, references, statistics | 5 Comments »

It feels like crystal

Ben Goldacre
Thursday December 11, 2003
The Guardian

· As a Guardian-reading science bunny, there’s something slightly galling about the way that right-on beliefs so often seem to cluster together. For example, what’s the connection between torturing political dissidents and crystal magic? Over to the Amnesty Christmas catalogue, and its magnificent Salt Crystal Lamp. “Crystals are one of nature’s most effective purifying minerals. They 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.”

· Is Amnesty doing this to give us some small window of experience into what it’s like to be persecuted for your beliefs? Crystals do not absorb water, or at least, if salt crystals did, they would dissolve away pretty quickly, and you’d be left wondering which puddle to stick in the post to demand your money back with. Nor do they work as air fresheners. And you don’t need to spend £34.95 to find that out for yourself.

· And now to Michael van Straten, the Daily Express’s “nutritionist”. “Recent research,” he says, has shown that turmeric is “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate”. Every single day of every single week, you can be sure that a pseudoscientist somewhere is extra- polating merrily away from obscure lab findings to pretend that something is proven and effective. Ridiculous. There are, for turmeric and prostate cancer, speculative lab studies of cells growing or not growing under microscopes, and usually from rats. That’s not enough. Forty years ago this guy called Bradford-Hill knocked out a set of criteria for assessing causality. Read them once: it will only take 20 seconds of your life, and it is the cornerstone of evidence-based medicine, after all, which is what these guys are always pretending to call on. It needs to be a strong association, which is consistent and specific to the thing you are studying, with a temporal association between cause and effect; ideally there should be a biological gradient, such as a dose-response effect; it should be consistent, or at least not completely at odds with, what is already known (because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence); and it should be biologically plausible. The Daily Express’s nutritionist has got biological plausibility, and nothing else. Well, that and 20 seconds’ reading to change the habit of a lifetime.

MMR – Never Mind the Facts

December 11th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, channel five, express, independent, mail, MMR, statistics, telegraph, times | 30 Comments »

This article won the £2,000 ABSW Best Science Feature Award 2003

Channel Five’s new drama about the link between MMR and autism makes great TV. But it gets the story, and the science, disastrously wrong. How did we get to such a level of confusion and hysteria about this vaccine? Ben Goldacre unravels the real MMR story

Thursday December 11, 2003
The Guardian

There’s not a lot you need to know about the link between MMR and autism, except that there’s very little evidence to suggest any link at all. You don’t have to take my word for it, because I’ll describe the science later Read the rest of this entry »

Swimming with sharks

October 30th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cosmetics, express | 4 Comments »

Swimming with sharks

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 30, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· Dolphins will save us all, according to the International Journal of Bad Science – sorry, I mean the Express. “Swimming with dolphins is increasingly recognised as a therapy for clinical depression, autism, and other neurological conditions,” it says, before regaling us with tales of autistic children speaking their first words. All sounds jolly nice, if a bit sentimental. No bad science there. Although no evidence on Medline. I was just wondering, how does it work? Over to Dr Horace Dobbs: “One theory is that the sounds they make coming through the water interact with our central nervous systems and produce tiny holes which can boost energy and stimulate the immune system,” he tells the Express.

· Tiny holes? A bunch of holes might well stimulate the immune system, but who says that’s a good thing? In the past week, it’s been reported that echinacea, Geranium Egypt aromatherapy and aspartame are all immune system stimulators. But could stimulating the immune system, if such a thing is possible, actually be bad for you? Holistic Vets spammed me last week trying to get me to feed my cat “immune stimulating” mushrooms, weirdly, I swear, on the actual day the cat died from leukaemia, a disease of an overactive immune system.

· Do these things come with a health warning? Clearly not. Although best-selling author Andrew Weil says: “I advise people with diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus to avoid long-term use of any of the immune-enhancing botanicals. But I think it’s perfectly fine for them to take echinacea or astragalus short-term (up to 10 days or so) to treat colds and other minor infections.” Based on what exactly? Well, he is a doctor. And Dr Dobbs is, it turns out, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, no less. You can buy his book, Dolphin Healing, on Amazon at the moment for 1p.

· Which is a lot cheaper than the bottle of “Organics” conditioner with collagen and amino acids (your hair is dead, I repeat, your hair is dead) that I have before me. May I point out, before I go, that the ingredients of this conditioner are as follows: Aqua, Cetearyl Alcohol, Dimethiconol, Cetrimonium Chloride, C11-15 Pareth-7, C11-15 Pareth-5, Parfum, Tocopheryl Acetate, Citric Acid, Amodimethicone, Cetyl Hydroxyethylcellulose, TEA-Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Hydroxide, Isoleucine, Lysine, CI 47005, CI 4700, CI 42051, and Collagen Amino Acids.

Can anal retention help you beat depression?

September 18th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, express, herbal remedies, new scientist, references, times, weight loss | 5 Comments »

Can anal retention help you beat depression?

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 18, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· You might wonder why I’m being so anally retentive about everything this week. I can only say in my defence that I’ve been doing my best to follow Hiroyuki Nishigaki’s excellent book: “How to Good-Bye Depression: If You Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday. Malarkey? or Effective Way?” available now on Amazon (£14.49).

· The Independent on Sunday managed to infuriate me by carrying an interesting story about comfort eating in rats – apparently it blocks the effect of a hormone implicated in stress – but then not bothering to tell us anything as useful, or crucial to the story, as which hormone. Meanwhile their books section, as is traditional, carried a string of articles that nobody without a PhD in literature could possibly understand.

· The Times on Saturday managed to cheer me up by starting a flatteringly derivative bad science column called “Junk Medicine”. “Chelation therapists, magnet pushers, Cherie and Carole: you are being watched,” sounded eerily familiar, so I decided to watch the Times closely. On Sunday my vigilance was rewarded when its sister paper told us: “The remedy that has performed well in trials to reduce the pain of postherpetic neuralgia is reishi (Ganoderma lucidum).” When they say “performed well in trials” I presume they mean the one trial that was done, in 1998, of four people, with no control group. Find out more at the writer’s awkwardly confident www.whatreallyworks.co.uk, or come chat with me on their excellently unpoliced message boards…

· Meanwhile the Sunday Express claimed “clinical research published in the journal Life Sciences” showed pycnogenol, an extract of pine bark, to be effective at treating blood pressure over 12 weeks. This study is not on medline, or in the Life Sciences index, or in the latest edition of the journal.

· After this orgy of pickiness I was dizzy with over-excitement at spotting some bad science in New Scientist: “A new kind of machine … locates and measures your body fat. It could then tell you exactly where you could do with losing a few pounds and even advise you on exercises for your problem areas.” Normally I wouldn’t dare to question the überboffins, but this sounds a lot like the “spot reducing” myth, the idea that muscles use fat from overlying tissue rather than the whole body, which is widely regarded as rubbish.

Don’t throw away those drugs

August 14th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, express, independent, scare stories | 2 Comments »

Don’t throw away those drugs

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 14, 2003
The Guardian

· After the slightly overplayed HRT and breast cancer editorial in the Lancet, I was itching with delight at the prospect of another pill scare, especially in the week that MMR vaccination rates – the scientific illiterati’s last major public health victory – were shown to have dropped into the red zone of 70% in parts of the country. The Lancet report was the latest of many pieces of research over many years showing that HRT, as with all drugs, is a tricky matter of weighing up risks and benefits. Or as Joan Smith of the Independent on Sunday put it: “Trust me, I’m not a doctor…chuck away the tablets.” Yup, stop ‘em suddenly, the readers’ll thank you for that one in the days to come. Christa Ackroyd of the Sunday Express has been contemplating a move into scientific research as an ideas powerhouse. “The survey begs many answers to many important questions, but how about this one for starters? If 1.5 million women in the UK are already on it, why is this the world’s first study into its long-term effects?” Good point, Christa. After all, there have only been 1,594 articles published referring to HRT and breast cancer in the past two decades. And as for the columnists who don’t like having “chemicals” in their bodies, can I suggest dialysis as the most effective way to remove your own hormones.

· A reader has stumbled upon timely advice for anyone travelling with homeopathic remedies from the website www.travellingwithchildren.co.uk “Try not to put homeopathic remedies through airport security x-rays as it will render their healing properties less effective.” I wonder who made that one up. You should also “pack them well away from strong-smelling substances, ie essential oils, perfume, after-shave, toothpaste etc”. And bullshit, presumably. Perhaps they got their ideas from the Society of Homeopaths’ leaflet series: “You can protect them by using a lightweight lead-lined bag of the type sold for photographic films, or carrying them in your pocket.” Evidence on a postcard please. Speaking of which, may I draw your attention to point 72 of the society’s code of ethics: “To avoid making claims implying cure of any named disease.” Transgressions of that on a postcard please. Although an email would do.

· And lastly, it was a treat to see the BBC cottoning on to the snake oil industry explosion, with their one-off TV show the UK’s Worst Quacks last week. Although many of you were surprised to see a homeopath on the programme’s panel, merrily passing judgment…