Just Keep Wearing The Tinfoil Hats

December 10th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cash-for-"stories", magnets, statistics, very basic science | 28 Comments »

Ben Goldacre

Saturday December 10, 2005

The Guardian

The reason that I am so fabulously wealthy (girls) is, of course, that I am paid by the government and the pharmaceutical industry to rubbish alternative therapies and MMR conspiracy theorists, and thusly maintain what you clever humanities graduates like to call “the hegemony”.

After last weeks excellent “magnetic wine improver” debunking I seem to be deluged with Bad Science projects lined up for publication in academic journals. King among them all is “On the Effectiveness of Aluminium Foil Helmets: An Empirical Study” by Ali Rahimi et al, of MIT.

You will all doubtless be familiar with the use of radio signals by the government to monitor your thoughts and control your behaviour. Aluminium helmets and hat-linings have been recommended by various people in the conspiracy theory community for many years, as a protective measure against this government interference. However, although theoretically plausible, until now the foil hat had, surprisingly, never been experimentally validated.

Rahimi et al have healed this gap in the literature, using a $250,000 network analyser and a directional antenna to calculate the ability of each of three aluminum helmet designs to reduce the strength of the radio signals entering the brains of a sample group of four individuals.

Their results are more startling than anyone could possibly have predicted. The receiver antenna was placed at various places on the cranium of each experimental subject: over the frontal, occipital and parietal lobes. Measurements were taken, once with the helmet off, and once with the helmet on.

As per best practice, the foil helmets were constructed with the double layering technique described elsewhere in the literature. The network analyzer then plotted the amount by which the signal was attenuated – or reduced – by the foil hats, across a wide range of frequencies. The results were startling. Although the helmets did reduce the strength of the signal by around 10dB across most of the spectrum, there was an unexpected second finding: the helmets did in fact amplify signals, in certain very specific frequency ranges, by a huge 30dB at 2.6GHz, and by 20dB around 1.5GHz.

What are those frequencies used for? I’ll tell you what they’re used for. They coincide almost perfectly with frequencies allocated to the US government, between 1.2 Ghz and 1.4 Ghz. “According to the FCC,” explain the authors, “these bands are supposedly reserved for ''radio location'' (ie, GPS), and other communications with satellites.” And what about the other frequency that’s amplified into your brain? “The 2.6 Ghz band coincides with mobile phone technology. Though not affiliated by government, these bands are at the hands of multinational corporations.”

To the authors of the paper, the meaning of all this is very clear. “Statistical evidence suggests the use of helmets may in fact enhance the government's invasive abilities,” they conlude. “We speculate that the government may in fact have started the helmet craze for this reason.”

To me, it’s a lot simpler than that. This paper is itself a transparent attempt by the government to prevent us from taking simple and effective protective measures. Keep wearing the helmets. Unless, of course, what the alternative therapy conspiracy theorists say about me is true.

Meanwhile a statistician working at Cambridge University has discovered “the mathematical formula that determines how newsworthy certain mathematical formulas are”, inspired by the recent discovery of mathematical formulas yielding the perfect family Christmas, pancake, plate of baked beans, a happy life, dunked biscuit, teapot spout, film, piece of buttered toast, Christmas turkey, Christmas cracker, and pork crackling.

Dr Oliver Johnson's formula for newsworthiness is that N = 0.3T + 0.15 FU + (QND + 0.7 PS)^2 * x/PDS. “Here, N is the Newsworthiness of the story, T represents how Topical the material can pretend to be, FU is how Famous the University that the researcher represents is, QND is the Quietness of the News Day, PS is how much Pseudo-Science can be worked into the story, x is the Bung Received from a PR Company and PDS is the Perceived Difficulty of the Sum.”

Dr Johnson explains: "The media are petrified of covering anything more scientific than a cup of tea and a biscuit. This formula will give them a way of filling their pages with safe, non-threatening fluff, whilst ignoring scary scientific issues."



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

28 Responses

  1. oharar said,

    December 10, 2005 at 7:44 am

    I’m perplexed by Dr. Johmson’s formula: shouldn’t the FU coefficient be negative? Otherwise places like Cambridge Uni will never get into the pap…. Oh, I see.


  2. rich13 said,

    December 10, 2005 at 10:28 am

    Here’s a formula:

    This article + Google + inability to recognise sarcasm = slump in tin foil sales

    I hope you’re satisfied. Are you funded by clingfilm manufacturers or what?

  3. chromey said,

    December 10, 2005 at 11:08 am

    I’m rapidly becoming convinced that the author of Bad Science is in league with the Illuminati and the Elders of Zion and the 12-foot shape-shifting lizards. I mean, just shove a ‘Yitzhak’ in front of his name and it all beeCoMeS CLEEAR!!1!!!!!1!1!11


  4. amoebic vodka said,

    December 10, 2005 at 11:26 am

    Where can we get these bribes from the government/pharmaceutical industry/biotechnology companies/aliens? We’re running short of vodka.

  5. BSM said,

    December 10, 2005 at 2:50 pm

    You need to have signed up already, I’m afraid. If they see you free-lancing for no pay you can never get a penny out of them- why pay for what people will do for free.

    Anyway, the butler tells me he’s added the last bottle of champagne to my bath so I’d better get to the other end of the plane. I mustn’t keep that team of cheerleaders waiting, their pom-poms will get all soggy.

  6. Tessa K said,

    December 10, 2005 at 7:24 pm

    Dissing humanities graduates again? It’s a conspiracy, I tell you.

  7. oharar said,

    December 10, 2005 at 8:28 pm

    BSM is lucky he’s wearing a tinfoil hat. If he wasn’t, we’d only be able to beam the lower-grade hallucination to him. In that one the butler only has stale bitter, and the “cheerleaders” are the Melton Mowbray first XV.


  8. BSM said,

    December 11, 2005 at 5:37 pm

    I thought that blonde was a rough kisser.

  9. Richard said,

    December 11, 2005 at 5:42 pm

    Presumably bottles of champage are added to BSM’s bath to displace water, thus increasing the water level over his tummy and avoiding the need to add more actual water. Cheapskate.

  10. BSM said,

    December 11, 2005 at 10:56 pm

    That’s not a tummy, that’s a six-pack……of Party Sevens. (Thank you. Thank you. 70’s nostalgia night will continue on Channel 4 after this break…)

  11. BorisTheChemist said,

    December 12, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    Ben, the amplification occurs at 1.2 GHz not 1.5 GHz as you have said. In fact there is a 20 dB attenuation at 1.5 GHz. Also put a space between your numbers and your units!!!!!

    Bloody journalists, can’t get anything right!

    🙂 🙂 🙂

  12. Martin said,

    December 12, 2005 at 3:43 pm

    I recall being taught that you should use a space if you write the word of what is being counted, but no space if you use an abbreviation (ie, you could write either 4 metres or 4m). Hence, Ben is correct in writing 1.5GHz and 20dB.

    Of course, he’s incorrect in writing dB, as the decibel is a relative unit of measurement, and so the terms of reference should also be included.

    OK, I’m a geek, I know it. New Year’s resolution: Get out more.

  13. BorisTheChemist said,

    December 12, 2005 at 4:07 pm

    Sorry we get taught that a space should always be put in between the numbers and units – this is certainly standard journal practice in chemistry and physics. I had my first year report shredded by my assessor due to me forgetting to do this consistently. The gentlemen in the “report” observe this convention too.

  14. Elmer Phudd said,

    December 12, 2005 at 4:12 pm


    Surely 99.9%(*) of journal abstracts held by PubMed, and 100%(*) of all science PhD theses can’t be wrong 🙂

    (* yes I counted. Shut it! Pfff!)

  15. Teek said,

    December 12, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    my PhD supervisor insists on me putting spaces between numbers and abbreviated units too, i guess it’s convention to do so…!

    Ben, can we buy tinfoil hats in the BadScience shop yet…? if not, how can i prevent the government from snooping into my private thoughts…?!

  16. wombat said,

    December 12, 2005 at 4:52 pm

    “Of course, he’s incorrect in writing dB, as the decibel is a relative unit of measurement, and so the terms of reference should also be included.”

    Actually decibels are fine for measuring the gain of an antenna or an amplifier. The strength of the signal being the term of reference.

  17. bifyu said,

    December 12, 2005 at 11:12 pm

    This MIT study has also been rebutted by the experts at Zapato Productions intradimensional:


  18. Zorkmundsson said,

    December 13, 2005 at 8:21 am

    “against deflector beanie technology, and aluminum shielding in general, in order to disembeanie paranoids, leaving them open to mind control.”
    The Disembeanie Paranoids. I preferred their ealier work.

  19. ian glendinning said,

    December 13, 2005 at 3:46 pm

    The Cambridge Stats Lab examples are (like their own material) firmly tongue in cheek in the first place.

    As Rich says, one of the problems with search engines, is there current inability to recognise sarcasms or irony, because as Kirkegaard said,

    “Irony is the keenest medium for truth”


  20. John A said,

    December 13, 2005 at 6:02 pm

    Martin Sorry but in this instance dB refers to gain, therefore the reference value is clearly the power in the 1.5 GHz range without the hat. So the formula in this case is:
    gain (dB) = 10*log10( power in band with hat / power in band without hat )

    I too will endeavour to get out more to atone for my pedantry.

  21. Biscit said,

    December 16, 2005 at 12:32 am

    Fantastic article.

    I would further support wombat in saying that because decibels are a relative measurement of amplification/attenuation, there is no need for a reference.

  22. Gordon said,

    December 17, 2005 at 12:17 pm

    Donald Knuth(the god of scientific typography) says NO spaces between the quantifier and the unit!

  23. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 17, 2005 at 1:07 pm

    The Famous University coefficient is inferred to be negative in the formula for the Untrustworthiness (U) of mathematical formulas in mass media news stories, which is what at first reading I thought was being presented. Sadly it seems that the rest of this formula is not yet revealed, after all, and editors who wish to maximise the value of U in their periodicals cannot do so reliably for the time being. They’ll just have to do the best they can.

  24. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 17, 2005 at 1:16 pm

    I find the spaces an aid to legibility.

  25. docb said,

    December 18, 2005 at 6:06 pm


    in your article Saturday December 10, 2005 about foil hats you forgot to
    mention that it is imperative to use some form of dielectric to insure good
    electrical contact with the skull/scalp.

    While it is not necessary to shave the head, although this is preferable, it
    is necessary to apply a fair amount of a quality dialectric such as mayo or
    lemon curd, or my personal favourite, swarfega. Without this your foil hat
    is practically useless. I assumed that this was common knowledge, but from
    your article I see that it is not


    docb a man who knows

  26. David said,

    December 26, 2005 at 11:41 pm

    Spaces between units are the SI standard (mimicking French). Having no spaces is the standard for the English language. You get to pick which you prefer.

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