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 »

Nutritionist-free diets

June 2nd, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, nutritionists, weight loss | 6 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 2, 2005
The Guardian

Talk about bad science

· OK, hands up. I hate nutritionists and phoney diet marketers. I hate them because they confuse evidence and theory. I hate them because they make sweeping assertions that something will work in the real world on the basis of tenuous laboratory data. And they either do not understand that, or they do and they are being dishonest. In either case, I hate them. I hate them because they are richer than me. And lastly, and this is a tricky one, I hate them because they give dangerous advice.

· At first glance, they give quite sensible advice. Dr Gillian McKeith PhD – for all the awful poo business and her bizarre misunderstanding of basic science about things like photosynthesis – promotes a pretty normal, sensible, healthy diet. The GI diet, for all the guff that goes with it, does too. And the grandiose nutritionism-peddling columnists from Sunday magazines, even if they do recommend you eat some particular nut because it contains lots of vitamin G and selenium, are still basically recommending fruit and veg. Everyone knows basic dietary advice, and they don’t need a nutritionist, doctor, alternative therapist or journalist, to tell them. They need their mum.

· But the trouble is this: nutritionists and their kin sell the idea that diet is somehow more complicated than that; something that requires access to arcane and detailed knowledge to which only they have access; knowledge of the breakdown of exactly what is in each food. And so the shopper is paralysed. But do I need vitamins L and Y this week? Or calcium? Or protein? Or no protein? What kind of fat did you say again? Because when you sell the idea that eating well is complicated, that foods are made of immemorable combinations of chemicals, then you prime the market for Fruittella Plus “with added calcium and vitamins B, C and E”, and 7-Up Plus from Cadbury’s “with calcium and vitamin C” and the rest. I could go on. In fact, market research company Mintel’s new Global Products Database has identified a trend among confectionery manufacturers to fortify their products with vitamins and minerals. Mintel watch you eat. Their reports have chapter headings such as “continued focus on indulgence in desserts” and “focus on children in processed poultry sector”. And they are watching your every little irrationality so that somebody, somewhere, can take advantage of it. The moral? Eat your greens. Or the bogeymen will come and get you with their weird processed chicken army.

Chips with everything

December 2nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, nutritionists, weight loss | 4 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday December 2, 2004
The Guardian

· I love Christmas. All those festive news stories planted by industry about how chocolate and booze are good for you, and then the excitement of a season of new year bad science detox stories to look forward to. “According to the British Nutrition Foundation, most adults tend to put on at least 5-7Ib over the four-week Christmas period.” So says the PR department of Phase 2, a white kidney bean extract that’s “the low-carb diet in a pill”. It’s a great idea: an amylase inhibitor that stops your body breaking down carbohydrates, so you can’t absorb them and you presumably poo them out. Whole chips perhaps.

· It’s not a particularly new idea. In fact, in 1983, Professor John Garrow and some colleagues read about a similar product, and came up with an ingenious way of testing it. We eat plants and then break down their carbohydrates, release their energy for our own dubious purposes and breathe out carbon dioxide. There are two isotopes of carbon: carbon-13 and carbon-12. Some plants have a higher amount of carbon-13 in their sugars than others, so if you eat the carbohydrates from them, you soon breathe out carbon dioxide that has more carbon-13 than usual. To measure carbon-13 against carbon-12 you need a mass spectrometer: the joy of being a scientist is that you might have a friend who has one lying around on the day you feel like causing some trouble. They gave five obese women starch meals containing lots of carbon-13, along with a placebo tablet, or Starchex, the amylase inhibitor tablet of the day. The result? Placebo or amylase inhibitor, it made no difference, they still breathed out the same amount of carbon-13; they also had the same blood sugar changes and insulin levels after their meals. As far as you can tell, the pill made no difference to starch absorption.

· But wait: Phase 2 boasts “eight separate clinical trials”. I could find one properly published, in the Alternative Medicine Review. The Phase 2 group lost 3.79lb, and the placebo group lost 1.65lb, on average: but the difference was only statistically significant at p=0.35. That’s not even worth printing, because it means (and bear with me professional statisticians, I only have 400 words to make my point here) that there was a one in three chance that the finding was completely by chance. One in 20 is the traditional cut-off for people to take a finding seriously. And regardless of statistical significance, I leave it to you to decide if a difference of 2lb has any practical significance. Keep eating those chips.

Vitamins advertised

November 25th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, nutritionists, weight loss | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 25, 2004
The Guardian

· Come with me as we pull back the veils, and examine the bizarre world of the nutrient marketing industry: I give you Nutraingredients, one of the many trade publications that feed the vitamin headlines. They enthuse about the developing trend among confectionery manufacturers to fortify their products with vitamins and minerals: nice. They eagerly explain how Unilever-owned Solero leapt on the noble campaign to get us to eat five pieces of fruit and veg a day, by advertising itself as the “ice cream to help you reach five a day”. Decadent westerners, open your ears and not your mouths: ice cream is not good for you in the same way that fruit and vegetables are.

· They also suggest that a rather small (albeit satisfactory) trial of vitamin E supplements in diabetics can be deployed in campaigns to negate the impact of that very large well-publicised meta-analysis of 14 separate placebo trials which damaged their industry by finding that vitamin E supplements can actually increase your risk of death: which is a problem notably not associated with a proper balanced diet. Reader Roger Daniels certainly knows his onions. “Most of us get our fat-soluble vitamin E through a balanced diet containing such things as nuts, vegetable oils or oily fish,” he explains, before revealing, with a flourish: Andrex with Aloe Vera and Vitamin E.

· It’s not clear to me exactly what proportion, if any, of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E I’m expected to absorb from my anal verge: certainly the French are in favour of the rectal administration of drugs, partly on grounds of taste – feel the irony – and partly because the veins that take blood away from the rectum can go straight into the bloodstream without passing through the liver, and so an entire phase of first-pass metabolism may be avoided. Look, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be educational, just because we’re talking about my sphincter; we’re all grownups, and we’re perfectly capable of talking openly about our bottoms without deploying puppies. I’m equally willing to entertain the hypothesis that the vitamin E is there for cosmetic reasons, intended perhaps to reduce sphincteric wrinkling. After all, you can also find vitamin E in Body Shop Tinted Moisturiser, and just like their blurb says, “as an antioxidant, it can help protect the skin from the harmful effects of pollution and extreme weather”. Which could be very useful in the adverse meteorological conditions of my cleft.

Health food shopped

November 18th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, nutritionists, weight loss | 6 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 18, 2004
The Guardian

· Imagine what would happen if I just went crazy one day and started making stuff up. I mean, we’ve built up such a relationship of trust over the years. But I’ve found my evil twin (thanks to reader Deirdre Janson-Smith), and he’s working for the Bucks Free Press. Peter Marcasiano claims “some health foods are just as bad as junk snacks,” and the joy is he’s got buckets of science to back it up. Debunk away, Peter.

· First he rails against fruit juice: “What it actually does when you drink it is go straight to the liver – fructose does not enter the blood stream like other sugars – and the liver readily turns it into fat.” Now, I’d be really interested to know how this boy thinks absorbed nutrients are getting out of the 30 feet of well-vascularised gut that’s jumbled up in his tummy, and then across to his liver, if it’s not in his blood. Some might naively read medical textbooks and suggest that the answer lies in the hepatic portal vein. Perhaps in his world it gets absorbed into some amorphous mush behind his belly button, and then diffuses over to the liver under its own steam. I’m also enjoying the idea that every last fructose molecule gets picked up the moment it passes through the liver, without any getting into the systemic circulation. If anything, of course, the liver has to play around with what fructose it picks up to turn it into the glucose that your body can use, so the blood glucose levels from fruit don’t peak so high, and it doesn’t mess with your insulin so much. Which is one of many reasons why fruit is better than a Mars bar.

· He goes on. Commercially-treated vegetable oil is bad because it’s had sodium hydroxide bubbled through it, and “just in case you didn’t know what that is, it’s the substance you put down blocked drains to unplug them”. It is therefore a “poison”. Although to be fair, Peter, it’s not like you’re eating highly concentrated alkali, any more than the hydrochloric acid in your gut is going to melt your toes. But no, I was wrong, it’s been proven with science: “The trans-fats that are produced during the pre-frying have been isolated by researchers and injected into animals.” Gosh, what happened next, Peter? Er, that’s the end of the story. I guess that someone scientifically injecting it into animals is scary enough. Margarine “will damage your heart like no other spread,” pasteurising dairy “denatures the beneficial fats and proteins” and … Sigh. Just eat your greens. You’ll be fine.

The not so posh Kettle Chips

October 21st, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, dangers, scare stories, weight loss | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 21, 2004
The Guardian

· Let me take you back two weeks, to the story of Kettle Chips. They are running a slightly improbable ad campaign, slogan “No Science, No Fiction, Just Real”, in which food science technology is the bad guy and high salt, high fat, low nutrient, mass produced junk food – mysteriously – is the natural wholesome maverick alternative. Why attack science? I had to understand, so I rang their head office. Apparently we all misunderstand the brand. “This started when we found that people just think we make high salt, high fat, posh crisps.” Apparently they don’t use flavour enhancers (except salt and fat) and some bloke stirs the big vat with a rake instead of a machine. They must have pretty good PR training, because by the time he got on to not targeting children in their adverts, even I felt sorry for them.

· But I have in my hand, courtesy of vigilant reader Dr James Lloyd, a piece of paper. It’s from the Food and Drugs Administration in the US, and it’s an exploratory study of the amount of acrylamide in various foodstuffs. Acrylamide is used to make polyacrylamide, which is used in cosmetics, packaging materials, plastics, and grouting agents. Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke. Stop me if you’ve had enough of this nasty old “science” stuff. Acrylamide also causes cancer in animals (at high doses) and has been shown to cause nerve damage in people exposed to high levels at work. It can be formed by certain ways of cooking food. Like really hot fat and carbohydrates mixed together. Acrylamide, you understand, has only so far been proven to be dangerous at much higher levels than you find in most food. I’m not in the business of starting health scares.

· But guess what? Kettle Chips Lightly Salted Natural Gourmet Potato Chips contain acrylamide at 1,265 parts per billion. They’re in the top 1% for acrylamide content in this FDA exploratory study of over 700 foodstuffs. Kettle Chips say acrylamide content fluctuates over a season. This compares with acrylamide figures given for, say, chips from McDonald’s at only 155ppbn, Burger King 197ppbn, and KFC only 117ppbn. Although don’t go getting all excited about the low figure for acrylamide in KFC: remember, unlike my dead cat, I’m not a “clinical nutritionist” with a phoney qualification, so we don’t go around extrapolating from isolated laboratory findings into self-indulgent nonsensical lifestyle advice. Oh no. Living on junk food is still bad for you. And eat your greens – just like your mother told you.

Channel 4’s ‘doctors’ continued

October 14th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, channel 4, gillian mckeith, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, weight loss | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 14, 2004
The Guardian

· I’m in a difficult position. You may remember Dr Bannock PhD: he is a Channel 4 TV doctor and a certified professional member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, like Dr Gillian McKeith PhD (and my dead cat Hettie). In fact, pretty much the only thing my cat doesn’t have is a PhD and a Channel 4 show. Now, I had all kinds of awful things to say about Dr Bannock, but he’s written me such a nice collection of emails, and put such an earnest retraction of hisPhD from the Open International University of Complementary Medicine (OIUCM) on his website (www.doctorbannock.com/about_me.html) after I contacted him with my concerns, that I can’t bring myself to speak ill of him. I honestly think, regardless of the fact that he describes himself as having seven memberships, three fellowships, six diplomas, and eight certificates, the odd lectureship, and isn’t quite sure if he might have claimed for a while to have a PhD from Brunel (which has never heard of him) and continued to call himself a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine even after his membership had lapsed – despite all this (deep breath), despite the fact that he has qualifications in “Scenar” and live blood analysis, both of which I’m looking forward to writing about in the future and despite the fact that he’s been written about positively in the Daily Mail, the Express, the Sunday Times Style, and other repeat offenders … I seriously like the guy. And pseudoscientific new age nonsense aside, I’m sure he’s done a lot for Sting’s wife, Madonna, and all the other celebs he associates himself with. I mean it. It’s not my fault if I have a naturally unearnest prose style.

· But Dr Bannock is important to me for two reasons. First, he’s our second “doctor” on Channel 4 with highly questionable qualifications, and I want to know how many more there are. I thought about asking Channel 4, but the last time I rang its PR department I was treated like a naughty schoolboy. So here’s the deal: just send me the name of everyone on Channel 4 you see who describes themselves as a doctor, and I’ll do the rest.

· Second, and more important, the PhD that Dr Bannock got from OIUCM only costs $850. I’m told there are lots of people on Harley St with OIUCM PhDs. Now listen: the editor of Life is on holiday at the moment, and while he’s away we run the budget. So 850 emails, that’s all I need, and we might just be able to buy a PhD for my dead cat before the boss gets back.

Who’s the bad guy?

October 7th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, dangers, scare stories, weight loss | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 7, 2004
The Guardian

· What is science? A set of techniques, perhaps, for approaching a problem, or examining and describing the world. It informs, but is different from, technology, which in turn lets us do things like fly disaster rescue missions, phone our parents or manufacture processed junk food, each according to personal taste and preference. Or, if you’re a gullible neo-luddite new age moron, science is the universal bad guy. Like in the new Kettle Chips four-page pullout advert. Strapline: “No Science. No Fiction. Real.”

· Nice. “Our potatoes … ” they say, “one season they’re planted, it rains a bit, then the next season we dig a few up to check they’re ready before harvesting them. Not much science to that.” From what I remember, I’d say the completely amazing story of how a little round potato grows, with water and carbon dioxide and sunlight, into a bushy four-foot green plant with loads more potatoes under the ground, is pretty much our core constituency. And the astonishing unlikeliness of how it all works still blows my mind 15 years after Mr Hollander taught me back in the lower fourth about photosynthesis, chemotaxis, and that amazing stuff where the roots know how to grow down instead of up even in the dark.

· Back to the advert: “Salt and vinegar? No thanks. Sea salt and balsamic vinegar for us_ No Science.” No, heaven forbid. Salt is a nasty chemical that gives you hypertension and heart attacks. Natural sea salt is a different kettle of chips altogether. Now, stop me if I’ve lost what little perspective I once had, but to recap: these are crisps, and this is a junk food company, advertising its junk food which it makes in a big factory somewhere. It’s promoting rubbish food that will make you fat and ugly, and now it’s telling me that “science” is the bad guy that I’m supposed to be afraid of.

· Well shake my pot belly and shower me with emboli, why would a junk food company want to turn me against science? After all, science gave it cheaper ways to make junk food, and imaging advances help us see the damage its food does to our arteries, and epidemiology helps us to notice that its food lowers our life expectancy, and materials research helps surgeons to replace our blocked, rotting arteries so that we can keep on stuffing our faces with its posh crisps. Who’s the bad guy there, fat boy?

Chocolate love

January 8th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, celebs, chocolate, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, weight loss | 12 Comments »

Chocolate love

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 8, 2004
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· With painful inevitability, that old chestnut about chocolate’s health-giving properties popped up on the health and women’s pages of almost every newspaper, as is traditional at Christmas. The Daily Express eagerly pointed out that it’s “a good source” of flavanols, antioxidants, magnesium, zinc and iron. And in the Telegraph: “Chocolate is good for you,” says Chloe Doutre-Roussel, chocolate buyer at Fortnum & Mason. “It has minerals such as fluoride for the teeth and potassium, like bananas.” Doutre-Roussel is, we are told, “an ultra-slim Frenchwoman… Although she eats 1lb of chocolate a day, she weighs a mere 7st 12lb.” Mars, which has been lavishing money on research into the benefits of chocolate for 10 years now, started this tradition five years ago, employing PR consultancy Grayling Healthcare to send out press releases such as “Media Alert: News for Chocolate Lovers this Christmas”.

So, whatever the truth is about minerals, the manufacturers of Galaxy and Milky Way must have been disappointed by recent research showing that what few antioxidants there are in cocoa beans are hardly absorbed from milk chocolate at all. Manufacturers first flaunted chocolate’s healthiness during food shortages after the first world war, and only stopped when we started measuring and labelling the contents. Just as that process got going, the 1930 Food and Drug Review said: “The magic words ‘health giving’ are today the most overworked and loosely applied in the advertising lexicon.” – 74 years ago.

· The Mail on Sunday’s “integrated health expert” Dr Ali was busy this week writing about headaches. “The skull,” he claims, “contracts and expands a dozen times or so each minute to push the [cerebrospinal] fluid round, but tight neck muscles and misaligned skull bones can disrupt this process.” You don’t need to be a doctor like Ali – whose clients include Prince Charles and Geri Halliwell – to know that the skull is a rigid box of bone and, since you asked, the fluid is kept moving by the waving movements of cilia lining the ventricles, respiratory and arterial pulsations, postural changes and the pressure gradient between the places where it’s made and reabsorbed. Ali, despite qualifying in Delhi and Moscow, is not registered with the General Medical Council because, his website informs us, “the treatment which he personally provides uses massage, diet, yoga and natural supplements and oils which do not need prescription”. Why not rob a bank and visit him anyway, at his “Integrated Health Centre”, just off Harley Street.

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.