The Guardian | Saturday September 24 2005
The au pair said something very funny about my dinner parties the other day: oh hang on, wrong column. Didn’t they tell you? We’re all written by the same person. So I’ve been reading the BBC’s Read the rest of this entry »
The Guardian | Saturday September 24 2005
Thursday September 1, 2005
Â· “One of Britain’s most widely prescribed antidepressants has been linked to a seven-fold increase in suicide attempts.” Hold the front page! Oh hang on, it’s on Read the rest of this entry »
Thursday May 12, 2005
â€¢ Nobody is inviting me to any premieres for the US hit docudrama What the Bleep Do We Know!? â€” in cinemas next week â€” so all I know about it is the Telegraph magazine article that reader Ken Joy sent me. The film features the work of Dr Masaru Emoto, who, the article reports, has a PhD from the Open International University; it doesn’t mention that Read the rest of this entry »
Thursday April 21, 2005
Â· That poo lady gets everywhere. Now let’s get this straight: I like organic food, alternative therapies are OK by me, and scare stories are often great fun. What I don’t like is made up bollocks. And there’s only one thing I’m disappointed with the Soil Association for, which is giving its 2005 Consumer Education award to Dr Gillian McKeith PhD. Who can forget the time she educated us all about photosynthesis on national television, explaining that chlorophyll is “high in oxygen” and that the darker leaves on plants are good for us because they contain “chlorophyll – the ‘blood’ of the plant – which will really oxygenate your blood”.
Â· Of course, if you want real nonsense, you’re best generating it yourself. The three prankster geeks at MIT who had their phony paper, Rooter: a methodology for the typical unification of access points and redundancy, accepted for an academic conference this week, have released their random text-generating code to the world: just type in the author names of your choice, and you too can generate your own computer science research paper of grammatically consistent but meaningless gibberish. For example, at tinyurl.com/8b2bw you can find a paper entitled On the Analysis of Robots that appears to be written by “Dr Gillian McKeith PhD, Ben Goldacre, and the staff of Penta water”. Although the next time you visit it might be On the Synthesis of Neural Networks or Permutable, Fuzzy Epistemologies for Semaphores. Don’t tell McKeith or she might use it to write her next series.
Â· But I digress. The trouble here is that the Soil Association is an independent body, whose little kitemarks only mean anything if we believe that it knows what it’s doing. I’ve even been kind enough in the past to not write about the “organic salt” packet someone posted me, featuring the Soil Association kitemark. Disappointed, I got in touch with its press office, and blow me if they weren’t lovely. “The Soil Association believes it is very important to give the public sound advice on issues of health and nutrition and for our licensees to do the same. I hope that we are an organisation people trust because we take this responsibility seriously.” And? “I was not aware of the specific concerns you have raised when judging the awards. The matters you highlight are clearly important, and I will be discussing them with Gillian McKeith and her representatives directly and in detail.” Contrite surprise or PR fudge? We’ll know by next week.
Thursday March 24, 2005
Â· Welcome to Bad Science, where we use GCSE physics to solve science problems set by sinister international companies. Thinking back to when you were 15, you will remember that heat is transferred from a warmer object to a cooler one along a temperature gradient. In fact, forget that, think back to any common sense situation you have encountered: ice cubes do not heat up cups of tea; when you hold a cool piece of metal in a fire, it gets warmer; and you cannot boil a bowl of milk by sitting it in a pan of boiling water, because milk boils at a temperature higher than the boiling point of water. Hold that thought. Water boils at about 100C, milk boils at something a bit higher than that, so heat will not transfer against the gradient from the water, that is 100C, to the milk, to make that milk even hotter than 100C.
Â· Where am I going with this? Straight to the “research and studies” section of the Penta “restructured drinking water” website where it has a jolly scientific paper showing that the boiling point of Penta is higher than the boiling point of de-ionised water, written by Dr Boris V Nemzer and Professor Andrew Dickson (tinyurl.com/527h8). Wow. Penta really must be different. So I couldn’t quite believe it when Mark Atkins wrote in to point out an interesting quirk in their apparatus. According to the study, the de-ionised water boils at 100.082C (+/- 0.008), and the Penta water boils at 100.125C (+/- 0.008), so the boiling point of Penta is 0.043C higher. The setup was this: they had a glass beaker of boiling de-ionised water, and in this they floated a smaller glass container filled with either Penta or de-ionised water, boiling, with its temperature measured with a probe. You can see where we’re going with this. If Penta has a higher boiling point, how did it boil at all, in a bath of de-ionised water that has a lower boiling point? I tracked down Prof Dickson at University of California, San Diego, where he suggested that this surprising phenomena might be explained by the water in the larger beaker being “slightly superheated”.
Â· I contacted Ed Tarleton, Bad Science emailer and research physicist, to run it by him. Not only did Ed agree with us, he also checked their thermometer and found that the Hart 1504 has an accuracy of only 0.02C at 100C. “The error is a lot larger than they make out,” said Ed, “which might explain how they observed the impossible and had heat transferring from a cooler to a warmer body.” Are we really right? We can’t quite believe it. Read the paper and let us know.
Thursday March 10, 2005
Â· The great thing about Bad Science is the column just writes itself. Like when Penta Water wrote in to say “Sleep well tonight and think about how and why you tried to fuck us over and practice [sic] keeping one eye open.” It may have apologised, but the curse of Bad Science has struck again: this time, through the mighty hand of the Advertising Standards Authority.
Â· Someone – I like to fantasise it was one of you – wrote to the ASA to complain that Penta’s adverts “misleadingly implied the product had health benefits over and above those of ordinary water” and that “the claims ‘restructured’ and ‘it might be just H2O, but it’s no ordinary water'” were misleading. Here are some of the quotes from Penta that worried them: “Easy to drink – Proven faster, better hydration – No sloshing or fullness Penta is ultra-purified, restructured ‘micro-water’. Groundbreaking science – proven by patent. Just H2O in smaller stable clusters.” Nice. “You too can use Penta (1-4 bottles a day) to enjoy what we call “Bio-hydration” optimal cellular hydration that makes your body come alive … Penta is proven to hydrate more efficiently due to its unique structure.” And the proof? “It’s been shown by researchers at the University of Calif. at San Diego that Penta water hydrates cells faster and more effectively than other waters. Researchers at Moscow University demonstrated that Penta improves the environment within your cells …Unique patented structure … proven at the prestigious General Physic Institute.”
Â· Now check this. The ASA can be even more patronising than me: “They [Penta] submitted research papers that they believed showed scientific evidence of restructuring… The authority took expert advice and understood that the scientific evidence submitted did not prove that Penta had health benefits over and above those of ordinary water, or had been restructured to form stable smaller clusters. It also understood that hydrogen bonds in ordinary water were a weak type of chemical bonding that allowed the formation and reformation of temporary clusters of water molecules in liquid phase water many times per second.”
Â· So the ASA has told Penta not to repeat claims that imply its product is chemically unique, has been restructured or molecularly redesigned, or improves physical performance better than tap water. I can’t help wanting to ask, only I’m too scared to phone them again: how is Penta going to flog this water now?
Thursday February 10, 2005
Â· You’ll be pleased to hear that I’m still alive. Unless you’re from Penta Water. I was feeling terribly afraid after its text messages saying things like, “Practice [sic] keeping one eye open.” But then you sleuths rallied round.
Â· Everyone and their dog emailed in about Penta’s tussle with James Randi, stage magician and debunker of nonsense. He has $1m on offer for anyone who can demonstrate under controlled conditions that something vaguely spooky is happening – the spookiest thing is that it has remained unclaimed for years. Penta’s ambitious claim that seeds germinate in half the time in Penta Water, compared with normal water, seems like a pretty easy experiment, suggests Randi. Perhaps someone could finally take that $1m off his hands. Penta triumphantly announces it will try for the prize (www.randi.org/jr/08-24-01.html) and Randi suggests independently verifying the experiment. Penta wants to use some weird “Bio Impedance Analyser” to test how hydrated humans get on their water, instead. No problem, says Randi, gamely, use anything you like, let’s say you just have to identify correctly which type of water, Penta or non-Penta, was drunk by 37 out of the 50 subjects. But then, as if by magic, in a puff of suggestions that it might sue, Penta disappears, saying it doesn’t have the resources to nominate one trusted person to watch an experiment it is so confident will net it $1m. It doesn’t threaten him with violence. Maybe Penta was worried that Randi might have magical powers, too.
Â· But Bad Science sleuth of the week goes to Ray Girvan of ace debunking blog Apothecary’s Drawer, because he found out that Penta UK is run by Debbie Flint, “the original queen of shopping telly” and author of Freedom Eating: “This natural weight loss method has systematically helped thousands of people to break free from Food Prison.” I think we can imagine what kind of weight loss system “freedom eating” is. “There are three accompanying CDs with a retail value of over Â£36. CD Three is Audio Chocolate by LJ Rich, music to help you lose weight by!!” Brilliant. And in June 2000 in the News of the World: “TV shopping channel beauty Debbie Flint became the target of sick phone pests – after her number was listed in the Mensa directory of Britain’s brainiest people.” Mensa? “When I started getting these unpleasant calls out of the blue I couldn’t for the life of me work out why I was being picked on,” said Debbie. Neither can I.
Thursday January 27, 2005
Promoting the public misunderstanding of science this week we have Waitrose Food Illustrated, talking about Penta bottled water: “It’s ‘ultra-purified, restructured micro-water’ that offers ‘optimal cellular hydration’.” Sounds expensive. I wonder how it works. “By disrupting the naturally occurring molecule clusters in water with high-energy sound waves, they are able to pass more easily through the body’s cell membranes, quenching the thirst better.” Apparently it offers significant health benefits.
So I try to find out how and whether it works. Just watch as I waste a whole morning. First I go to Penta’s website. It’s dripping with scientific terminology and links to research, which end at best with a couple of very tenuous papers published in obscure Russian journals. Here’s a sample. “There are many types of bioactive molecular structures, including clustered water that scientists are continually researching, for instance at Cambridge.” Follow the link and you find a serious page about physics from a scientist and the disclaimer: “LINKS FROM ANY COMMERCIAL ORGANISATIONS TO THIS SITE ARE ENTIRELY UNAUTHORISED AND UNWELCOME. THE MAINTAINERS OF THIS SITE HAVE NO CONNECTIONS WITH ANY SUCH COMPANIES OR THEIR PRODUCTS.” I phone him. He roars with laughter, but isn’t in the mood to be quoted on something that has nothing to do with him. And rightly so. I get on to Penta. Got any peer-reviewed data, I ask? Apparently not yet. All the stuff on performance isn’t out yet, they’re keeping their heads down while they do the research. While they’ve been keeping their heads down, the Penta website quotes Metro as saying “hydrates at the intercellular level and has many recorded health benefits”, Men’s Health said it is “proven to hydrate more quickly” and the Daily Mirror said it will “increase the body’s cell survival by over 200%,” meaning I will die sometime after the year 2200. “The claims aren’t as far-fetched as they sound,” says the Evening Standard. I can’t wait to see the coverage they get when they go public with this.
But they do have a published paper, I’m told, on liposomes in vitro with aquaporins in an artificial membrane, “or something”, that shows the water is absorbed faster. They’ll email me the reference. Instead I get a call from the MD, who gets very upset that I am trying to catch her out on the science and asks that I don’t quote her. So I didn’t even get a confirmation that the paper exists. The morning is over, and confusion reigns supreme.
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
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 »
Thursday September 2, 2004
Â· Time for a Johnny Ball kitchen science experiment, I think. I could have told you from the start that “Aqua Detox” was a scam, and a popular one at that. Why? Because it is claimed to extract “toxins” from your body through the “2,000 pores in your feet” discovered by those ancient Chinese scientists. And because it’s so charmingly theatrical: you put your feet in a water bath, containing “natural organic salts”, with an electrical current that “resonates” with your “bio-energetic field” passing across it, and the water goes first tea-coloured, and then properly brown, with a sludge on top. You think I’m making this up, but it’s been in the Daily Telegraph, and innumerable other places. So it must be true. And this brown, the Aqua Detox people proudly tell you, is from the toxins coming out of your body.
Â· Thinking back to GCSE chemistry, it seemed likely to me that it was rust rather than toxins, since they have, after all, got a pair of metal electrodes in a salt water bath with a current passing across them. And so we set up, on a kitchen table, a bowl containing salt and water, with two metal nails attached to a car battery. And what do you know: our water goes brown too, with a nice sludge on top. Could this be the same brown as the Aqua Detox water?
Â· Bravely I sent along my friend Dr Mark Atkins to have himself Aqua Detoxed. He took water samples from the bowl, which we sent off to the Medical Toxicology Unit at New Cross, south-east London. You can only imagine our excitement, especially as they charged us Â£200 for the analysis. And so – triumphant music – the water taken out before they switched their Aqua Detox machine on contained only 0.54mg per litre of iron (probably from the metal spoon); but afterwards it contained … 23.6mg/l. Our water, from our kitchen table setup, contained 97mg/l (and it was a bit browner).
Â· But did it extract toxins? “Toxin” is classic pseudoscience terminology. Essentially, the Aqua Detox people are offering dialysis, through your feet. Urea and creatinine are probably the smallest molecules – call them “toxins” if you like – that your body gets rid of, in places like urine and sweat: if “toxins” were going to come out, anywhere, you’d expect those to come out, too. There was no urea or creatinine in the water before the Aqua Detox, and there was none in the water afterwards. Which means, I believe, that we win.