Of big TVs and magic cows

September 17th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, very basic science | 13 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday September 17, 2005
The Guardian

Welcome to Bad Science, where we catch, dissect, and then publicly flog the fools and frauds who talk nonsense about science. From cosmetics adverts, to alternative therapists, to flaky journalists and their groundless scare stories, we’ve had them all in the back of our big black van, and the bodybags are all lined up nicely at Badscience.net

So now we’ve been moved to the cold reality of the news pages, I’ve been told the rules are different: apparently we can’t count on you to know all the geeky stuff like we used to in the science section. So first we need to calibrate your level of knowledge.

Let’s start with a quote from the Wall Street Journal, sent in by Neil Forshaw: “SBC’s Internet-TV boxes will be smaller than a typical cable box. Cable boxes need to be big enough to store all channel programming at once, but because internet-based boxes stream only one channel at a time, they don’t need the extra space.”

I’m assuming at some stage you’ve picked up on the idea that the stuff on the screen doesn’t actually exist inside the box; and I’m guessing the general understanding lies somewhere between, firstly, recognising the importance of not licking your fingers and sticking them in the socket, and secondly, thinking it’s pretty clever and weird how moving pictures are beamed from one place to another.

Next up: in last week’s Metro they were talking out of their arses (via Eamonn Day): “Poo Power,” they begin. “The answer to the world’s energy crisis could lie with cows. Half a litre of rumen fluid – liquefied feed taken from the largest chamber of a cow’s stomach – produces almost enough voltage to run an AA-sized battery.”

Ignore the practicality issues for walkman users for one moment. “While the fluid won’t be used for power, some of the micro-organisms found in it are also contained in cow manure. Which means the more a cow eats, the more it poos, the more energy it creates.”

So again: I’m kind of counting on you to understand that cows can’t really create energy, except in certain theoretical circumstances under which you might not usefully describe them as cows any more. But more generally, if you correctly identified the quote as meaningless, pointless, senseless, lazy garbage, we should get on fine. We can talk about alternative therapies later.

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! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

13 Responses

  1. james lewis said,

    September 17, 2005 at 1:14 pm

    LOL – I spat out my grapefruit this morning whilst reading this in the print edition. For a time some colleagues and myself have been considering the idea of a “Bovine Synchatron” or perhaps a “Bovon Super Collider”. Essentially fire two cows at each other at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light and see what you get.

    Subsequently we got bored though, and moved on to trying to work out how big a broccoli and stilton quiche would have to be before it collapsed under its own weight to form a singularity.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing that laugh this morning and congrats on the promotion to the news section! Good work fella and keep it up!

  2. Ray said,

    September 17, 2005 at 3:44 pm

    The cow thingy, suprisingly, is real; what Metro are floundering around to describe is a fuel cell generating electrons from bacterial breakdown of cellulose. I’m sure the confusion stems in part from the original Ohio State University press release which waffles on forever about cow electricity and side issues about methane before getting to the specifics.

  3. amoebic vodka said,

    September 17, 2005 at 9:21 pm

    Noooo. Bad Science can’t be in the *Saturday* Guardian. That means we actually have to buy the paper instead of reading the copy in the coffee room.

    Heh, that’s one way to mangle a press release so that it no longer makes sense. We don’t understand why journalists feel that changing the odd word in a press release to make it incomprehensable is going to make the science easier to understand…

    blatent plug for blog

  4. Stig Carlsson said,

    September 18, 2005 at 12:35 am

    Wow! this is indeed bloody amazing. The only factor that keep some kinds of consumer electronics in the current kinds of boxes are the Customers them-
    The only thing in My experience that in any way keeps the size of boxes up
    are the power source; And that may be as small as a couple of cubic inches
    in a 2 by 5 by 10″-size box that together with the electronics and cooling equals about a half of it, the rest is contacts and such stuff; and some air too…
    COW POWER.INC. The possibilities of this is bloody Amazing; A ZILLION cow rumens powering London. With the amount of greenhouse gas that’ll provide
    they may just be able to use some of it to power the gigantic FANS to get rid of
    the smell!…( And the rest is Flooding.)

  5. asmilwho said,

    September 18, 2005 at 10:07 am

    I feel a delicious ironic thrill, when in the very same paper that promotes an awareness of real science via Ben Goldacre, publishes an article about “Oxyshot”:

    “The latest ultra-expensive consumable coming to Britain is a tiny £40 bottle of water beefed up with liquid oxygen.” (observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,1572984,00.html).

    Liquid oxygen ? That’s the liquid oxygen at -183 deg. celsius, is it ?

  6. Tessa K said,

    September 18, 2005 at 11:49 pm


    No, that’s oxygen with a magic ingredient – I’m no scientist but I think it’s called ‘hydrogen’.

  7. tom p said,

    September 19, 2005 at 6:21 pm

    Although, to give them their due, they did, for once, consult someone who appears to know what they’re talking about and who pooh-poohed this nonsense.
    Can’t really argue with that, especially not when they closed the article with it so that it’s the take-home message for anyone who read it.

  8. Graham Johnston said,

    September 20, 2005 at 7:39 pm

    I don’t know about newspapers but countless web usability studies show that most of us don’t read to the end of an article. The “pooh-pooh” needs to appear a lot earlier and more frequently than just in the final paragraph if you don’t want to lead people to think “bio-available diatomic oxygen, a small dose of Atlantic sea salt, deionised water, and extra oxygen pumped into the water using Nasa-based technology” is actually worth spending £40 on.

  9. Tessa K said,

    September 20, 2005 at 9:50 pm

    Graham – I agree. That’s why I was taught that, when writing an article, or a news story, the first two sentences should sum up the whole story. A lot of the so-called ‘new journalism’ doesn’t do this, a piece will start with a chatty bit to ‘set the mood’ and you have to read a few paragraphs down to find out what the story actually is. If you can be bothered.

    Also, if a piece is too long, subs tend to cut from the bottom up.

  10. Duane said,

    September 28, 2005 at 5:37 pm

    But, what if instead of cellulose breakdown (“fuel cell generating electrons from bacterial breakdown of cellulose”), they could do it with cellulite? (BTW, paper mills generate a LOT of waste cellulose)

    All the chubby people generating power and burning up the fat at the same time. Who cares about energy or air pollution? I want the process license for the diet industry.


  11. Delster said,

    November 21, 2005 at 12:25 pm

    The cow generator eh? another great idea that ranks with the cat / buttered toast generator

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