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 sense in the world, a small army of media studies graduates would be carefully documenting the number of “science” or “health” stories that related to genuine published data rather than overheard rumour, and diligently measuring how closely these stories kept to the facts. In the absence of such quantitative academic work, it was sadly left to our panel to select the most extreme examples for a cheap laugh.

The British tradition of not giving journal references for science-based stories made all of these categories difficult to judge. In May, our first candidate, the Sunday Times, described reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum) as having “performed well in trials to reduce the pain of postherpetic neuralgia”. The only paper we could find relating to this subject on Pubmed referred to a trial of four people in 1998. It had no control group.

The Daily Mail meanwhile made big meat of a scientific study proving that the Atkins diet worked. The study, which only lasted six months, showed that the Atkins group lost just 4% more weight than the control group. A month later the paper turned on the Atkins diet as a result of a passing comment from an expert who had worked for the carbohydrate-peddling Flour Marketing Board. The Mail also received a special mention for reporting the scientific claims of anti-MMR campaigning researchers such as Dr Bradstreet, despite their never being published in any paper which can be found on Pubmed. Unfortunately, these articles could not be formally assessed for the award, since there was no scientific data to examine.

However after much deliberation the judges felt the winner should exemplify the crime of extrapolating – from basic sciences research in a laboratory glassware setting – to pretending that population data exists to prove a particular therapy is effective. And so the winner is: the Daily Express, for its declaration in September that “recent research” has shown turmeric to be “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate” on the basis of laboratory studies into the effects of a chemical extract on individual cells in dishes, and no (zero) trials in humans.

Award for outstanding innovation in the use of the title ‘Doctor’

Again, there was a huge amount of competition for this category: after all, in the absence of evidence, authority is everything, and borrowing it can often be very cost-effective. The “Food Doctor”, Ian Marber, caused fierce debate among the judges: could an entrant be eligible if they ran a clinic called the “Food Doctor Clinic”, styled themselves as the “Food Doctor” in the media and in their books, marketed a large range of “Food Doctor” products, but didn’t actually call themselves “Dr Ian Marber”. We thought yes.

Dr Bannock, from Channel 4’s Why Weight and glowing pieces in the Daily Mail, the Express, and the Sunday Times, presented another quandary. Although he was still attached to his seven professional memberships, six diplomas, eight certificates, the odd lectureship, and had possibly claimed fraudulently in the past to have a PhD from Brunel, he did at least have the dignity to recant, under persecution from Bad Science, and publicly bin his $850 “PhD” from the Open International University of Complementary Medicine.

As the CVs of the entrants became more and more complex, Dr Ali – “Britain’s top integrated health expert” – of Harley Street and the Mail on Sunday, presented a further problem. He is not registered with the British General Medical Council, and although he does state that he went to medical school in Delhi and Moscow, he also states that your skull “contracts and expands a dozen times or so each minute to push the [cerebrospinal] fluid round” your brain, along with various other amusing misunderstandings of basic medicine. He informs us he has “chosen not to apply for registration with the British GMC as the treatment which he personally provides uses massage, diet, yoga and natural supplements and oils which do not need prescription”. Cynics might suggest that his decision not to apply for registration has got more to do with the fact that the GMC regulations forbid the endorsement of lucrative commercial products. Like “Dr Ali’s special recipe Ayurvedic Joint Oil” (£8.50).

However the prize went, in a surprising result, to Dr Gillian McKeith PhD. It would take an entire page to unpick, in appropriate detail, the complex web of this litigious candidate’s unusual CV. For those who are interested, she has now been the subject of six Bad Science columns, debunkings in several national newspapers, and a half-hour ITV documentary on Monday, which cheerfully borrowed all of my jokes, research, and ideas, although I’m not bitter. Suffice to say, regardless of the boring details, anyone who claims that eating chlorophyll will really “oxygenate your blood”, and that a seed contains “all of the energy necessary to make a fully grown plant”, cannot possibly have a meaningful postgraduate qualification in a biological field. She received a small specimen jar containing the faeces of the judging panel, which will be duly forwarded to her agent if she is willing to submit it for testing.

Bad Science product of the year

Of course, it’s only worth bending the facts if you have something to gain. There were over a hundred candidates in this category, but we whittled it down to a top five. SPES Capsules are a herbal alternative therapy whose manufacturers had a sudden crisis of confidence in alternative paradigms: they were found in a study to contain contain betamethasone, a potent synthetic glucocorticoid you wouldn’t expect to find in any plant; and alprazolam, a synthetic benzodiazepine, much like the addictive “mother’s little helpers” of the 60s, which might go some way to explain the claimed improvement in “quality of life”.

Durex Performa were in a slightly different category of bad, meaning “evil”: a new condom with a special cream in the teat “to help control climax and prolong sexual excitement for longer lasting lovemaking”. The magic ingredient was benzocaine, a local anaesthetic, which made the judges’ tongues go numb. We didn’t even think about trying it on our genitals. Persil Aloe Vera also received a special mention for totemic and pointless use of a herbal ingredient by a biotech firm.

Then there’s Cussons’ Carex, a soap that “effectively removes bad bacteria on hands, whilst gently protecting the good”. It was never made entirely clear how it was supposed to do this in the company’s evidence to the ASA for a complaint which they lost on. “Carex knows the difference.”

However the winner was Space Tomato Number One, part of the Chinese government’s “space breeding” project, where radiation in space is used to create comic book mutations and giant space plants, including tomatoes weighing almost a kilogram. It was never made entirely clear why the mutations would be beneficial, or why you needed to be in space to get irradiated. The Chinese news agency Xinhua stated that, “in China the radiation effect is always positive, leading to bigger and better vegetables that will revolutionise agriculture.”

Least plausible cosmetics claim

Generally, the claims of the cosmetics industry are well shored up with a few simple dishonest rhetorical tricks. However three products stood out. Valmont’s Cellular DNA Complex is made from “specially treated salmon roe DNA”, at the bargain price of £236 for seven phials. According to the Sunday Times’ style supplement, it “enhances the cosmetic properties (moisturising, regenerating and protecting) of DNA”. “Sadly,” their correspondent continued, “smearing salmon on your face doesn’t have the same effect.”

PO2 Contour Cream from Laboratoires Herzog is a “patented stabilisation of oxygen within a cream” that “puts oxygen back into the skin, reoxygenates skin cells, encourages natural rejuvenation”. It sounds like bollocks; but it smells like peroxide. Especially since Laboratoires Herzog point out, in the small print, that you will want to keep the stuff away from your eyebrows.

But the winner was a hair-straightening treatment by Bioionic, called Ionic Hair Retexturizing: “Water molecules are broken down to a fraction of their previous size … diminutive enough to penetrate through the cuticle, and eventually into the core of each hair”. Shrinking molecules caused some concern among the physicists at the ceremony, since IHR was available just 200 yards away, and the only other groups who have managed to create superdense quark-gluon plasma used a relativistic heavy ion collider. The prospect of such equipment being used by hairdressers was deemed worthy of further investigation.

Charles Darwin memorial prize for most unlikely death sustained while credulously being treated by a transparently fraudulent alternative therapist

There were four strong ex-candidates in this category, but as a democratic exercise in taste, it was left to the discretion of the audience to decide whether it was appropriate for the award to be presented in public. You lost.

Bad Science celebrity of the year

Juliet Stevenson made a strong case, not for her spectacular performance in Five’s MMR: the facts, but for her infinitely more compelling performance as a concerned neurotic parent hyping up the dangers of MMR in the all-too-real world of Radio 4’s Today programme and elsewhere. She received a special commendation from the judges for her excellent abilities to manage health risk on a population level, by being photographed the week before the awards driving her car with one hand and using her mobile phone with the other.

Anthea Turner was commiserated with on being burgled and losing £40,000 worth of possessions one month after having her house feng-shuied at great expense, and Carole Caplin also inevitably made an appearance, but both were trumped, to great popular acclaim, by Jeanette Winterson, for her excellent plan to send homeopathic remedies to treat HIV in Botswana.

As advertised here

Letters (following week):
Tomato squashers

Whilst I applaud your article on “bad science” and did find it most amusing (Atomic tomatoes are not the only fruit, December 16), perhaps the “Andrew Wakefield prize for preposterous extrapolation from a single unconvincing piece of scientific data” award should be awarded to every newspaper that decided that the MMR-autism link was genuine. Which would probably include you.
Jennifer Marshall
Wellcome Trust Immunology Unit, Cambridge

· I would just like to say a huge thank you to Ben Goldacre for his rather marvellous article. Finally, I have found that I am not alone in my agony. I am not the only one that sits on the sofa writhing in rage as we are forced to swallow yet more rubbish that programme makers portray as scientific fact.
S Clarke

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

9 Responses

  1. J Ross said,

    September 12, 2005 at 6:33 pm

    Least plausible cosmetics was hilarious, especially the incredible shrinking water molecule. I watch these commercials and writhe in pain with the claims of the fountain of youth.

  2. simon said,

    September 27, 2005 at 7:17 pm

    I have some of the Cussons Carex in my house and have been intrigued as to; a) how it manages to remove bad bacteria and protect the good, and b) What purpose exactly do these ‘good’ bacteria have on my hands?
    Anyway I’m glad my good bacteria are all OK.
    Besides cosmetics ads would be really boring without any pseudo science, bring on the organosynthetic, deep penetrating, fructo-acidic, microprotein nutri-complexes I say.

  3. Strange Sleep » Blog Archive » Lack of trust said,

    February 14, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    […] Are these the same newspapers that often make wild, implausible, (not to mention factually incorrect) extrapolations based on reports in science journals — or are we talking about some different newspapers that I don’t know about? […]

  4. Andrew Taylor said,

    February 7, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    I’ve wondered about Carex’ claims before. I would presume they’ve selected a small number of bacteria, defined each as “good” or “bad”, designed a product to aid the former and kill the latter, then tested it on those same bugs and exchanged overenthusiastic cheers when it unsurprisingly tested positive.

    I’ve also wondered if we could design a chemical that had the same effect on people — protecting the good and killing the bad — and then sort of release it into the atmosphere or the water supply. I feel sure this would help mankind immeasurably.

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