Funnel vision

July 7th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, herbal remedies, penises, references, statistics | 5 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 7, 2005
The Guardian

· There I was two weeks ago, making sarcastic jokes about how Bad Science was just a cover for the [coughs] popular statistics lecture series I secretly yearned to give, and now I’m about to try to explain funnel plots to you, in a national newspaper, and without any diagrams. Here we go. Publication bias makes the Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Waxing sceptical

March 4th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, penises | 12 Comments »

Waxing sceptical

Ben Goldacre
Thursday March 4, 2004
The Guardian

· Time for some more home science experiments. Robin Sidgwick sends in the catalogue for Ragdale Hall health hydro, which includes the fabulously theatrical “ear candling”: the idea is that a hollow tube of wax invented by Hopi indians is inserted into your ear and lit, in order to suck out any impurities. After the treatment, the candle is triumphantly opened, and shown to be full of orange goo. It’s excellent for “excess wax in the ears, sinusitis, or general blocked sinuses… A must for anyone who hates the syringe!” After an argument at a party about how sceptical I always am, I’ve got a Hopi ear candle right here. Time for a Johnny Ball moment. Get an ear candle. Wave it over an ashtray or some carpet fluff as I am now doing: nothing so far… A paper published in the medical journal Laryngoscope used rather expensive tympanometry and found that ear candles exert no suction. The researchers also found no reduction in the amount of wax after a programme of ear candling. Although, if you’re getting bored of all these negative findings, they did ask 122 colleagues, and collected 21 cases of serious injury from burning wax falling on to the ear drum. If you find, while having your ear candled, that you experience a sudden loss of hearing, and agony followed by bleeding: that’ll be the deafening sound of your own painful credulity.

· But numerous ear candle manufacturers, such as Biosun, are proud to tell you that their product conforms to EC directive 93/42 and bears the CE mark. Sounds good. EC directive 93/42 certification, routinely dragged out by pseudoscientists, for a Class I medical device (am I the most boring man you know?) is a matter of filling out a little form, where you say you think it’s probably safe. “The devices must be designed and manufactured in such a way that, when used under the conditions and for the purposes intended, they will not compromise the clinical condition or the safety of patients.” Quite.

· But I wouldn’t want you to think I’m uniformly sceptical. If you go to the website buttcandle.com you’ll find something that really does work, accompanied by numerous lovingly hand-tooled illustrations of hollow candles gently drawing toxins out through the rectums of happy customers. Oh yes. The only reported danger is of the pressures created by the buttcandle drawing haemorrhoids into the hollow channel of the candle, leading them to be tangled up in the hot wax. It’s got to be better than going deaf.

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.

What’s in a name?

February 5th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, penises | 4 Comments »

What’s in a name?

Ben Goldacre
Thursday February 5, 2004
The Guardian

· Proper scientists are getting on with the important business of broadening our vocabulary. Call me childish, again, but you might want to check out the unbelievably hardcore “molecules with silly or unusual names” website at the University of Bristol’s chemistry department (bris.ac.uk/Depts/Chemistry/MOTM/silly/sillymols.htm). For yes, there is a molecule called Arsole, the arsenic equivalent of pyrroles. And it’s a ring. Normally I wouldn’t give references to papers, but you might want to read about it in the definitive paper Studies on the Chemistry of the Arsoles, G Markl, and H Hauptmann, J Organomet. Chem, 248 (1983) 269. All very childish. I prefer Cummingtonite, a mineral named after Cummington, Massachussets, where it was first identified. And imagine the look of childlike excitement on the faces of mineralogists in Fuka, Japan, as they proudly emerged from the Fuka mines, bearing the mineral they knew they would be able to get away with calling “Fukalite”. Traumatic acid, erotic acid, Bastadin-5, Welshite, Butanol, Anol, Clitorin, Fuchsite, Carnalite, Ciglitizone, Vaginatin, Kunzite, Dickite, Moronic acid, Spammol, Pubescine and the recently isolated element number 111, which, under the IUPAC temporary naming system, is called unununium, presumably until someone famous dies. Fucitol, I’ve had enough, stop me now.

· Much as we feel obliged to love the BBC these days, they do seem to be making a habit of parroting any old nonsense. Environment correspondent Alex Kirby got very excited about the story of N’kisi the psychic parrot. Like almost every newspaper, he failed to mention the research was performed under the aegis of Rupert Sheldrake, who speculates that animals are guided by unproven “morphic fields” and whose last bout of pet research, on a psychic terrier called Jaytee, turned out to be unrepeatable in a study by Dr Richard Wiseman, published in the British Journal of Psychology. The parrot research was endorsed, pleasingly, by Uri Geller. “About 100 words are needed for half of all reading in English, so if N’kisi could read he would be able to cope with a wide range of material,” says Kirby, failing to realise, perversely for a wordsmith, that just because 100 words made up 47% of the content of the Washington Post in one study (don’t say I never give you original source material) that doesn’t mean you’d be able to make sense of it. But USA Today at least managed to mention that Sheldrake’s work has in the past “been met with scepticism among some scientists”. Only some?

How to increase your staying power

November 20th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dna, penises, religion, times, very basic science | 8 Comments »

How to increase your staying power

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 20, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· I’d always assumed that bad science in contraception was limited to delirious ramblings from the Catholic church about the HIV virus being small enough to fit through the gaps between the latex molecules. But perhaps not. As I lay in bed with Mrs Bad Science on a lazy Sunday morning, and our minds turned to thoughts of Barry White, and trains going into tunnels, and absolutely not having any babies at all, we reached hungrily for the reassuring certainty of barrier contraception. “I’ve got something very special for you,” she smiled.

· My treat, it emerged, was an optimistically large packet of Durex Performa: a new kind of condom with a special cream in the teat “to help control climax and prolong sexual excitement for longer lasting lovemaking”. Maybe you’ve seen the adverts. They feature, rather cleverly, a picture of “a very long screw”. And the magic ingredient? Five per cent benzocaine gel, a local anaesthetic related to cocaine: to make your willy go numb. In the spirit of the noblest of Victorian gentleman self-experimenters, I turned it inside out, licked the surface, and immediately lost all sensation in my tongue. It’s either very bad science or very good science – I can’t be sure – but either way, putting local anaesthetic in condoms is just adding insult to injury.

· While I was busy sulking, one of my spies, Tim Eyes, a molecular biologist, was reading about the “secrets of the body” in the Funday Times, the children’s section of the Sunday Times. Hold your breath. “Despite the fact that all humans have similar genes, we are not all the same,” the section revealed. “This is because of slight genetic differences in everyone’s genetic make-up. DNA is made up of four chemical bases – adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine – and each gene is made up of three of these.” Only three, huh? That’s enough to code for, like, one whole amino acid. We’d look a bit like those bodybuilders’ protein drinks, only without the tin. But there’s more. “This means that there are 64 different possible combinations, and when you multiply this by the number of cells in the body, it shows the chances of having the exact same makeup is virtually zero.” Only 64 different genes. And different ones in every cell, too. A planet of biologists stands corrected.