Polystyrene and calm kids

November 6th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, mail, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Polystyrene and calm kids

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 6, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· It’s been a great week for Bad Science. I was delighted to see designer Paul Cocksedge explaining in Elle magazine how he had made a lampshade out of polystyrene cups. “When I heat them, they bond together, all the air disappears from them, and they shrink to a quarter of their size, becoming hard like porcelain. I call the design ‘Styrene’, because all the ‘poly’ part, the air, has disappeared,” he confides.

· But the prize goes to nutritionist Jane Clarke of the Mail on Sunday. This week she was cooking up her “Recipe for Calm Kids”. After a diatribe against Ritalin (“more potent than cocaine”) she went on to claim that, in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), there is “research showing that dietary adjustments are equally effective alternatives without the side effects”, before recommending some expensive supplements.

· This is not true. It is also unkind. Nobody likes the idea of giving tablets to children, and there may be promising speculative research on omega-3 fatty acids and mental health, but if the data’s not there, the data’s not there …

· In fact, there seems to be precisely one study comparing Ritalin and dietary supplements, and it’s a study in how not to do research. It involved just 20 kids. The parents got to chose whether they wanted Ritalin or dietary supplements so, farcically, it wasn’t randomised; there was no placebo group, and both groups got better, though both got educated about dealing with ADHD so both would have got better anyway, and there was no attempt to compare outcomes between the groups, despite that being the whole point of the paper. It was published in the journal Alternative Medicine Review, and you may want to check out one of the authors.

· Let’s see what the New York state department of health’s office of professional medical conduct has to say about Dr Charles Gant MD, last author on the paper. Luckily, they have a searchable database of registered physicians. Oh look, he was caught ordering tests from an unlicensed laboratory that showed nutrient deficiencies in his patients, which he then claimed were causing their illnesses, which he would then treat with prescriptions of expensive dietary supplements. That is, expensive dietary supplements from his own company. Gant was suspended for six months for fraud. You can read the full judgment at tinyurl.

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