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.

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5 Responses

  1. Ryan Barrett said,

    September 8, 2005 at 9:43 pm

    Shame that the Joanna Bryson quote was inaccurage: anyone calling Warwick an idiot is worth of kudos in my book.

  2. That Science Coverage We All Hate | Cosmic Variance said,

    September 8, 2005 at 10:54 pm

    […] He makes several observations that I’ve made in the past, and that I also constantly rant on about at dinner parties (which might explain why I have not been invited to any for a while), and so I’ll tease you with some extracts, which will hopefully encourage you to go and read the whole article, and then come back here and chat with us about it, ok? It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science. Science stories usually fall into three families: wacky stories, scare stories and “breakthrough” stories. Last year the Independent ran a wacky science story that generated an actual editorial: how many science stories get the lead editorial? It was on research by Dr Kevin Warwick, purporting to show that watching Richard and Judy improved IQ test performance ( Needless to say it was unpublished data, and highly questionable. Wacky stories don’t end there. They never end. Infidelity is genetic, say scientists. Electricity allergy real, says researcher. I’ve been collecting “scientists have found the formula for” stories since last summer, carefully pinning them into glass specimen cases, in preparation for my debut paper on the subject. So far I have captured the formulae for: the perfect way to eat ice cream […] the perfect TV sitcom […], the perfect boiled egg, love, the perfect joke, the most depressing day of the year […], and so many more. A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you (, just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity…. These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable. At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are – of course – a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers. […]

  3. LibraryLink » Blog Archive » All the Bad Science That’s Fit to Print said,

    September 13, 2005 at 6:52 pm

    […] Ben Goldacre, a UK physician, owns a blog called Bad Science in which he he talks about, well, you know. He published an article in the GUARDIAN in which he attacks the British media, print and broadcast, for their utterly execrable explanations of stories about science. Not only do they fail to explain science stories interestingly, or even correctly, they use them in some perverse ways of their own. Dr. G creates a simple taxonomy for the way the “press” handles items of scientific character. Some are treated as wacky stories: a “slap- your- forehead- in -astonishment- at- those -weirdos ” approach. Another favorite is the scare story in which some actually existing risk is magnified into an imminently threatening catastrophe…the “Flesh-Eating Bacterium” is the Grouch’s favorite. Lastly, there’s the “breakthrough” story, in which some interesting, perhaps promising line of investigation is inflated in importance well beyond any reasonable, or even sane, expectation. Goldacre gives examples of each kind. He’s very tough on the press, and tougher on the “science editors” who let these abuses continue, but suggests that maybe the editors don’t know enough science themselves to see the problem. The Grouch took a look at the Bad Science blog. I guess we can take comfort, of a chilly sort, in knowing that pseudoscientific flummery and scamming are flourishing across the Pond at least as well as they are here. The posts on Penta Water are funny. What is it about water, anyway? To read the Guardian piece, go to Scitech Daily Review. It’s in the middle section, Books and Media Scitech Daily The blog can be found: Bad Science […]

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