Up in the air

June 16th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, oxygen, very basic science | 4 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 16, 2005
The Guardian

· Do you ever get the feeling that a story is just disappearing before your very eyes? There I was, cheerfully reading about the Opur Oxygen Canister that reader Diana McAllister sent me. Why would anyone want to inhale expensive oxygen from a tin that costs £10, you rightly ask. After all, if you’re the proud owner of two lungs then you already inhale more than the average, and oxygen, like love, is free and all around us. Feel the love. Breathe the oxygen. But no. There is a reason. “Just 300 years ago, the density [sic] of oxygen in the environment on Earth was 30%. Today it is 19-20%.” Breathe into that thought. Feel the bad science washing over you.

· Now I am an innocent soul at heart, with an inquiring mind. Perhaps I’m wrong on this one. I mean, maybe things have moved on since I did A-level chemistry a whole 12 years ago, but I vaguely remember at least 200 years before that some French bloke called Lavoisier burned candles in closed containers and found that only a fifth of the air was consumed, called that bit “oxygen” instead of Phlogiston and then sat wondering what the other 80% of air was all about. The answer is “being nitrogen”, for those of you a few hundred years behind the game.

· But the Opur people have a far higher opinion of your scientific knowledge than I do. Evolution, they think you will be thinking: surely we could evolve to deal with this change in atmospheric oxygen, in a mere 300 years. They have an answer for that too. “Simple living cell creatures [sic] will adapt to such changes in the environment. However, man has not become more efficient at extracting oxygen from the air.” No. Here we are living in a hostile alien environment with a third less oxygen than we evolved for, a whole 300 years after this gigantic change in the composition of the earth’s atmosphere. Now, I’ve got as much respect for an argument deploying comparative physiology as the next man. But this guff appears almost 200 times on Google (www.tinyurl.com/bcuql). So I bravely write to half a dozen sites at random, and they all, all, write back, within 12 hours, to say they’re taking these quotes off their webpages. Check it out. I’m more effective than the ASA. We’re waiting to talk to the distributor, but the man from retailer www.opuruk.co.uk rang me back. “By the time your story comes out we will no longer even sell this product,” he said, which is a shame, since I have no idea if it is any good and rather wanted to try it. Where did my story go? Only another 185 retailers to go.

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4 Responses

  1. jonnyjazz said,

    October 10, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    The retailer www.opuruk.co.uk may well have taken the product off its website back in June 2005 but they have some for sale now. Breathe in and relax as now you can choose from three different sized canisters. Which one do I buy? Decisions, decisions…

  2. Robert Carnegie said,

    October 11, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    Do they perhaps mean 300m years ago?

    Somewhat less relevant to your wellbeing and mine. Plenty of time for evolution there!

    It’s easy to leave out millions in news stories. NTK.net used to collect cases. You know, like, “Scottish Parliament votes to spend £5 on drugs harm reduction programme.” (Made up example.)

    Then there’s the question of people who live up serious mountains around the world – apparently at greater risk of heart disease, one admits.

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