The Great Tamiflu Vaccine Scare

February 18th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, evening standard, express, independent, mail, mirror, MMR, scare stories, telegraph, times | 54 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday February 18, 2006
The Guardian

The interesting thing about the Tamiflu vaccine for bird flu that everybody keeps going on about, is this: it’s not a vaccine. The manufacturers even spell that out in their factsheet. It’s a drug, an antibiotic for viruses.

But you wouldn’t know that if you read Paul Routledge in the Mirror, Alan Hall in the Daily Mail, Sally Guyoncourt in Read the rest of this entry »

It’s A Miracle!

February 16th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, independent | 47 Comments »

Here’s a funny thing. I wrote the post below, at the beginning of the year, about how Jeremy Laurance, the Health Editor of the Independent, had apparently conjured a “miracle cancer cure” story out of thin air, but I didn’t publish it onto Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t dumb me down

September 8th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, bbc, cash-for-"stories", channel 4, channel five, chocolate, dangers, express, gillian mckeith, independent, letters, mail, media, mirror, MMR, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, references, scare stories, statistics, telegraph, times, very basic science, weight loss | 85 Comments »

We laughed, we cried, we learned about statistics … Ben Goldacre on why writing Bad Science has increased his suspicion of the media by, ooh, a lot of per cents

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 8, 2005
The Guardian

OK, here’s something weird. Every week in Bad Science we either victimise some barking pseudoscientific quack, or a big science story in a national newspaper. Now, tell me, why are these two groups even being mentioned in the same breath? Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong? Like a proper little Darwin, I’ve been Read the rest of this entry »

Publish or be damned

August 3rd, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent, mail, media, statistics | 5 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 4, 2005
The Guardian

· I have a very long memory. So often with “science by press release”, newspapers will cover a story, even though the scientific paper doesn’t exist, assuming it’s around the corner. In February 2004, the Daily Mail was saying that Read the rest of this entry »

Risk of infection

May 26th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, express, independent, mail, mirror, MMR, telegraph, times | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 26, 2005
The Guardian

· I’d like to open with a sanctimonious moment. I don’t expect anyone else in the world to follow suit, but from now on, if I refer to published academic research, I’ll be giving the full reference, at the foot of the column if there’s space, or at least on the web version. Why this is not standard media practice has always mystified me. “Science communicators” do read original papers and critically appraise them before writing about them, don’t they?

· Anyway, we’ll come back to testicles later. Meanwhile, there are two outbreaks of polio in Yemen and Indonesia. The strain of poliovirus originated – pay attention – in the Kano province in northern Nigeria. What, you may ask, has this got to do with your gonads – or indeed those of the man you love? Well, a couple of years ago Kano was the focal point of a Nigerian Muslim boycott of polio vaccination. Imams claimed that the vaccine was dangerous, poisoned, contaminated and part of a US plot to spread Aids or infertility in the Islamic world. Five Nigerian states boycotted it. Because, as any trendy MMR-dodging north London middle class humanities graduate couple with children would agree, just because vaccination has almost eradicated polio – a debilitating disease which as recently as 1988 was endemic in 125 countries – does not mean it is necessarily a good thing.

· This brings us back to testicles. Because, sadly, the natural world does not quite share my sense of retributive justice, nor does the paramyxovirus that causes mumps. If it were infecting only the innocent unvaccinated offspring of humanities graduates with no understanding of risk, I’d pretend to be sad on their behalf. But no. There were 8,104 cases of mumps confirmed in the UK last year, up from a combined total of 3,907 for all the previous five years, chart fans.

· But mumps cases last year were predominantly in young adults, because young adults as a herd have the lowest immunity. And one in five young men who get mumps can expect orchitis, a new joy for fans of infected and inflamed testicles. If your balls hurt and you’re infertile, you might wish to thank, for their peculiar interpretation and eulogising on the dangers of MMR: Andrew Wakefield, Nigella Lawson, Libby Purves, Suzanne Moore, Lynda Lee-Potter, The Daily Mail, Leo Blair’s tight-lipped parents, and, let’s be fair, every single national newspaper.

BMJ 2005 May 14;330: 1119-20

Straight jabs

January 13th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent, magnets, mail, MMR | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 13, 2005
The Guardian

People sometimes say to me, “I enjoy Bad Science, but often the jokes go right over my head, which makes me worry that I must be ignorant.” To which I always reply: “Good.” Over to reader Anne Pickard: “Unable to get a copy of our Saturday Guardian, my husband bought the Independent, which included a feature on ‘The 50 best spa treatments’. You may be interested to learn that in seventh place comes “Magnetic Massage”, where your torso “is shrouded in an infrared-heated blanket that warms up your kidneys to help speed up the detoxification process in your internal organs”. Brilliant. Is there anything else I can do to warm my kidneys up? “Do something unexpectedly kind for one person every day,” says the careers development section of, “this tends to warm your kidneys.”

Meanwhile, it’s good to see some of you have been keeping an eye on the Daily Mail, particularly the story of a new “triple jab” as the paper called it. The vaccination they are talking about is the conjugate pneumococcal vaccine that the Joint Committee on Immunisation and Vaccination recommended at its last meeting. Most people had expected the Mail to get its knickers in a twist, but where did it pull the idea of a triple vaccine from? The pneumococcal vaccine currently licensed in the UK (given to children at high risk of complications from pneumococcal infection) is a 7-valent conjugate vaccine which protects against seven of the most common serotypes of pneumococcus. Shut up. Nobody complains about the Books section being too “Booky”. So anyway, it’s not a “triple” vaccine, that great Daily Mail bogeyman, because it only confers protection against one organism (Streptococcus pneumoniae), just like the Hib vaccine confers immunity to Haemophilius influenzae type B, and the conjugate Men C vaccine protects against Neisseria meningitidis.

Presumably, and this is the best explanation I can offer, the Mail journalist took the Department of Health’s suggestion that the vaccine would protect children against bacterial meningitis, pneumonia and septicaemia, and assumed this meant three separate diseases, like MMR protects against measles, mumps and rubella. But bacterial meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia are three – potentially fatal – outcomes of a pneumococcal infection. As our spotter says: “It’s a good job they hadn’t picked up on the 7-valent bit. They would have got even more excited about a septuple vaccine.”

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 »

The return of Captain Cyborg

April 29th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent | 5 Comments »

The return of Captain Cyborg

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 29, 2004
The Guardian

Captain Cyborg is back. Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University is a legend: this week the Independent ran a piece on his discovery that watching Richard and Judy on television for half an hour was the best thing to improve IQ test performance, and that reading a book was bad for you. Warwick was telling exactly the same story four years ago. I phoned his secretary and his research assistant to find out if he’d published this data in any journals. “Oh yes … the Daily Mail?” Not quite what I was looking for. “The Independent?”

So are the papers right to trust him? In 1999, several broadsheets covered his warning on cyber drugs. “Law enforcement officials are bracing themselves for the introduction of virtual reality drugs which, because they are transmitted across the internet or using radio waves, can be taken without anyone ever needing to actually possess them.” Warwick was quoted as saying: “The question is not whether virtual reality narcotics can be created, but how soon they can be put on the market.” Buffoon, says Inman Harvey of the University of Sussex. Irresponsible, says Professor Alan Bundy of Edinburgh.

· Warwick also surgically implanted a trivial chip in his arm, which allowed sensors to detect his presence and do things like turn on lights and open doors, then romped about in the media explaining gravely that he was now a cyborg: “Being a human was OK,” he said. “But being a cyborg has a lot more to offer.” Bravo. It was never clear why he couldn’t just carry the chip in his pocket. Before the century is out, he says, machines will take over the planet. “It’s difficult to describe how frustrating it is in the field seeing this man being our spokesman,” says Richard Reeve, of the AI department at Edinburgh.

· After the Soham murders he waded into the media again, saying he was going to implant a locating transmitter in an 11-year-old girl, in case she was abducted. The “chip” would cost “£20″. Academic experts in mobile phone networks and animal tracking with experience in similar devices thought it was bunk ( Children’s charities and medical ethicists said the unnecessary surgery was irresponsible. And any fool could see that a kidnapper would chop it out messily. As before, after a flurry of media coverage: nothing. Idiot, says Joanna Bryson of MIT. Unrealistic, says Professor Blay Whitby from Sussex. His experiments fail hilariously ( He’s obsessed with media coverage. And we can’t get enough of him.

(This story was followed up on here.)


Bryson and Whitby have since cast doubt on these quotes attributed to them from The Register. I now believe these quotes to be inaccurate.

A surrogate outcome

February 19th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent, mail, nutritionists, references | 3 Comments »

Read and search all the Bad Science Columns from the Guardian and more here.

Ben Goldacre
Thursday February 19, 2004
The Guardian

Hold your breath and forgive me: this week things are a tiny bit more complicated than usual. According to the Daily Mail, cod liver oil is “nature’s super drug”. I don’t doubt that for a minute. Although I can’t help remembering that almost every time I read a story like that, and then go and check the original published journal article, it shows nothing of the sort.

But this time I can’t even do that: because the paper has not been published yet. All there is on this research is a press release from Cardiff University. “The findings from this study will be published in a medical journal later this year.” When? Where? Has it passed peer review? Has it in fact been accepted? Was the study any good? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. There’s no way of knowing.

What I can tell you is that there were only 31 people in the study, which really isn’t very many, but I can’t tell you how significant or meaningful the results were, on this small sample, because they don’t tell us the figures. What I can also tell you, for all Cardiff University’s press release hyperbole about this being unique human in vivo evidence, is that it wasn’t even about real people getting better, or about their pain levels, or range of movement, or how far they could walk. All the study seems to show was a small change in a laboratory measurement of an obscure enzyme, what scientists call a “surrogate outcome”. That’s a hell of a long way from deserving five major stories in national newspapers, and even further from what Michael McCarthy wrote in the Independent: “They’re not yet saying it can enable you to stop a bullet or leap tall buildings, but it’s not far short of that.”

GPs this week will, quite rightly, be inundated with patients asking for advice on cod liver oil. How can they give the right advice? And, in any case, it’s not just a question of being right; how can they give sensible advice to pensioners, who may be almost living on the breadline, about whether to spend what little money they have on these pills? To do that you need a proper paper, with all the data. Because science is about data, and papers, which scientists spend their careers finding flaws in; it isn’t about taking things on faith, or on the word of experts. That, all too painfully, is at the heart of the public’s misperception of science, and of bias in research, and that’s something to be fought, as the House of Lords report on science and the media recommended: by training scientists to deal with the press appropriately.

This article has been followed up on here.

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 »