Beware alt.therapy

April 28th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, fish oil, nutritionists, times, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 28, 2005
The Guardian

· Sometimes I have elaborate and grotesque fantasies about alternative therapists, like the reliably foolish Susan Clark from the Sunday Times’ “What’s the alternative?” column. This week she was lecturing us on Omega-3 oils, in the pseudoscientific, jargon-laden, authoritarian rhetoric typical of the alternative therapies. They like to preserve the mystery, I suppose, though I’d count myself lucky to sneak half as much unexplained terminology onto one science page as the average alternative therapist gets away with – and I’d be using it correctly – but we’re getting carried away. Back to my fantasy.

· I imagine Susan Clark reading about herself once again in Bad Science, and try to picture her response. Does she need to check with a friend whether I’m right and she’s wrong? Do they have a secret giggle at her too? Do I spoil the surprise for her, if I point out what she gets wrong each time? Should I leave it to her to find out, like a kind of GCSE project? Does she ever believe she’s wrong? Or does she believe that we are two intellectual titans, who disagree on a complex issue of advanced science, where it is hard to be absolutely certain who is right and who is wrong?

· Look, it was nothing so big. She just said: “Fatty acids are composed of carbon molecules linked with hydrogen and oxygen atoms.” I mean, maybe it’s a slip that just happened to get past the scientifically literate Clark and all the Sunday Times’s scientifically literate subeditors, maybe she does know the difference between a molecule and an atom (Key Stage 4 science on the national curriculum, incidentally, I just checked, and you do it aged about 14). Maybe I should be ashamed of my pedantry. But as far as I’m concerned, if her sentence doesn’t leap out of the page at you, then you need a new engagement ring and some lead in your pencil; but maybe she’s never heard of graphite, or diamond, or fullerene (the cool, ball-shaped carbon molecule).

· No, hang on, she says the carbon molecules in fatty acids are “linked with hydrogen and oxygen atoms”. Perhaps this isn’t a slip of the tongue, or a misplaced word. Perhaps this is a systematic misunderstanding of the actual subject she’s banging on about like some expert. Maybe the sentence doesn’t even make sense if you swap “atom” for “molecule”; does she mean the carbon is joined together by oxygen and hydrogen? Why even try to write about it, if you don’t understand it? Oh, and we’re back to the first paragraph.

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2 Responses

  1. Jen Wight said,

    December 14, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    Is a slightly different mistake relating to carbon.

    Did anyone notice David Camerons acceptance speech where he said he would be “setting targets for reducing carbon”

    Not Carbon Dioxide, just carbon.

    Do you think his plans include targets for the reduction of coal, diamonds, trees, humans…

    Do we have a British BlunderBush on our hands?

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