The Mystery Of The Steaming Turd

January 20th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, ITV, media, postmodernist bollocks, references, roland kapferer, statistics, telegraph, times | 88 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday January 21, 2006
The Guardian

I seem to have opened up a whole new front of bad science by looking into the high end hi-fi industry: but that will have to wait for next week. “Scientists claimed yesterday that they have solved the mystery behind the success of Agatha Christie’s novels,” says the Telegraph. “Novelist Agatha Christie used words that invoked a chemical response in readers and made her books ‘literally unputdownable’, scientists have said,” according to the BBC.

What could this chemical response be? Who did these astonishing experiments? Over to the Sunday Times: “the study by neuro-linguists at the universities of London, Birmingham and Warwick shows that she peppered her prose with phrases that act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction. “Christie’s language patterns stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain,” said Dr Roland Kapferer, who co-ordinated the research. “The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.” ”

This important work was to be revealed in a documentary, The Agatha Christie Code, on ITV1, over Chsistmas. I watched it: nothing. They don’t mention the words “serotonin”, “endorphin”, or even the clumsy neophrasism “neurological opiates”, a single time. Not once. The closest they come is when some hypnotist bloke called Paul McKenna walks in and says: “I believe the main reason agatha christie is so successful is because of the pattern of addiction that she creates in her readers through brain chemistry.” Oh, and a self-help guru is introduced as “an expert in a new science of language, Neurolinguistic Programming” – which might surprise neuroscientists, linguists, and programmers – but he doesn’t say much.

In fact the sole substance of their research into the “science of Agatha Christie’s success”, was counting up how often she used different words in her books: it turns out that Christie used simple words, like “said” instead of “replied”, and this made her books a bit easier to read and, er, hypnotic. Fair enough.

But where did all these authoritative neuroscience quotes come from? Clearly I had to get hold of “project leader Dr Roland Kapferer PhD”. He was difficult to track down, as he is not a neuroscientist, but an “assistant producer” in TV, and writer of this show. I asked him, by now with a heavy heart: what was the evidence for his neuroscience heavy quotes, that appeared all over the newspapers?

His response was so extraordinary that I have reproduced it, in its entirety, for your amusement, below. I highly recommend reading it.

First he told me that this neuroscience stuff was a joke, and we should have all been media savvy enough to know that from the start. Read his quotes again. If they’ll let me, I’ll lend you the show on DVD, and you can decide for yourself how obvious the joke was.

Then he told me that the journalists writing about his program had misrepresented him. The Sunday Times article, in particular, “was not a particularly accurate report on what I said”. Ouch, tiger. Well, just to be absolutely clear, I’ve also posted his press release, for the show, in full, no misreporting possible, on, for you to read yourself.

Amongst other guff, in black and white, as clear as day, this press release contains key phrases, such as: “higher than usual activity in the brain. These phrases act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction. The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.”

Then finally, Kapferer gets all philosophical on my ass. “Like Jerry Fodor I’m dubious about a lot of the popular excitement regarding fMRI and PET and it was partly my intention to lampoon the very idea of PET as a way of understanding human creativity.” Right. “This goes also for the discussion of seretonin [sic] and endorphins and all the stuff about “brain activity.” Mmm hmmm. “Following Paul Feyerabend I would argue that science knows no ‘bare facts.’ And no such clearly defined process as a ‘scientific method’. Even the definitions of “experiment”, “evidence” etc vary wildly.”

It’s the kind of email that leaves you thinking: did I order this? I asked for some reasonable evidence to support his outlandish, extensive, widely reported, authoritative and fantastical assertions about serotonin and Agatha Christie. None was forthcoming.

So I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the public are confused about science, for the simple reason that the media is full of grandiose humanities graduates, acting as self-appointed experts and science communicators, who construct their own parody of what they think science is: and then, to compound their crime, they go on to critique science, as if their parody was the reality.

And did I mention that Christie’s book sales were slipping until rebranded by Chorion PLC; that the “research group” into her work was assembled specifically for the ITV program; that Chorion have recently relaunched her back catalogue; and ITV have signed a deal to double their order for Agatha Christie adaptations in the next year? Can we have some science on telly, please.

Here is the press release for the program:

(see if you can spot the bit where it’s obvious they were only joking).

Scientists crack the Agatha Christie code

Agatha Christie’s books may be literally addictive, claim scientists

LONDON. Monday, 19 December 2005

The mystery of the phenomenal
success of the world’s best-selling novelist, Agatha Christie, may
finally have been solved by a team of British scientists.

The results are revealed in The Agatha Christie Code, a new
documentary produced by 3DD Productions to air on ITV1 at 4pm,
Tuesday, 27 December.

A detailed computer analysis of Christie’s literary output undertaken
by linguistic experts from the University of Warwick, University of
Birmingham, London University and King’s College, London, has found a
clear pattern of recurring literary devices that stimulate higher than
usual activity in the brain.

These phrases act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and
endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure
and satisfaction.

The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing
literally unputdownable.

According to the study, Christie repeatedly employs literary
techniques which at first glance appear deceptively simple but in fact
resemble many of the patterns used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a
cognitive science employed by hypnotherapists and psychologists which
is concerned with the importance of words in ordering thoughts and

This raises the possibility that the combinatorial structure of a
Christie novel creates physiochemical responses in the reader that
have the effect of causing people to want to seek them out over and
over again, thereby making Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.

The research may finally explain why Agatha Christie ranks as the
best-selling novelist of all time with an estimated two billion copies
of her books in print. Nearly 30 years after her death, Christie is
still as popular as ever, selling millions of books around the world
each year. It is often said that she is outsold only by the Bible and

Among the findings are the following revelations:

 As Christie’s novels develop towards the plot dénouement, the
sentence structures reduce in complexity. The books become easier to
read as they go along, thereby increasing the reader’s levels of
excitement and stimulating the brain’s natural opiates.

 Christie makes uncommon use of words and phrases in connecting
passages which at first glance may appear separate and distinct but
add up to convey a common message to the reader’s unconscious mind.
(For example, seemingly innocuous sentences such as “I’d rather die
than go swimming” and phrases like “grave mistake” and “good grief”
can often be found in the same passage, thus leading the reader to
feel the overwhelming presence of death. Christie’s use of such a
device reflects the notions of Embedded Commands and Phonological
Ambiguity used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, whereby readers’ minds
are promoted to think about certain actions, qualities or feelings
without those thoughts necessarily becoming conscious.)

 The author’s frequent use of the dash (‘-‘) creates a faster paced
unreflective narrative. This type of narrative structure entices the
reader on and is similar to the long mesmerizing sentences employed by
hypnotherapists. Each sentence thus reaches across towards the next in
a way which spurs the reader on to keep reading and not to dwell on
the semantic possibilities of the previous one.

 Christie deliberately makes use of a repetitive core vocabulary and
everyday English. These devices force readers to concentrate on the
plot and the clues rather than be distracted by clever wordplay.
Readers of Christie are seldom distracted by heavy use of adjectival
or adverbial phrases (the statistical count of these type of phrases
is proportionally far lower than any of contemporaries such as Dorothy
L. Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

Comment on the results, project leader, Dr Roland Kapferer PhD, said:

“It is extraordinary just how timeless and popular Agatha Christie’s
books remain. These initial findings indicate that there is a
mathematical formula that accounts for her phenomenal success. I am
convinced that our research has come one step closer to defining what
it means for a book to be unputdownable. Our next step is to seek to
replicate these experiments with other leading authors to discover
whether their writings cause similar neurological activity among
readers. Whether Christie herself was aware that her words contained
such powerful neural triggers is another matter for debate and may
well remain an enduring mystery in itself.”

Dr Pernilla Danielsson, Academic Director of the Centre for Corpus
Research at School of Humanities, University of Birmingham, said:

“The lack of variation in her words can mean that Christie is
perceived to be a poor writer, however one could also say that she is
limiting her vocabulary deliberately so that the reader concentrates
on the clues and the plot. By focusing on using common words, the
dialogue text became closer to actual conversational language. This is
something she develops throughout her career and we can see in her
later books that she was keen on fixed phrases like ‘more or less’ and
‘a day or two’ which are so common in spoken language.”

The Agatha Christie Code, ITV1 at 4pm, Tuesday, 27 December 2005

– ends –

For further information and high resolution images, contact:

Sally Skinner
ITV Press Office
020 7737 xxxx

Andrew Sholl
Portland for 3DD
020 7404 xxxx

About 3DD Productions
3DD Productions is an independent film and television production
company specialising in live event programming, high profile
documentaries and independent films. It is a joint venture between
leading European independent music and entertainment distributor, 3DD
Entertainment Ltd, and producer Andrew Higgie, who for the past four
years ran the Filmed Entertainment Division of Clear Channel
Entertainment (Europe).

About Agatha Christie:
Known the world over as the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie
(1890-1976) is the world’s best-known mystery writer. Her books have
sold over a billion copies in the English language and another billion
in over 45 foreign languages. She is outsold only by the Bible and

Here is my correspondence with “project leader Dr Roland Kapferer PhD”:

hi roland,

here are the questions i was wanting to run by you:

Who funded the academic research that is referred to in the press
releases, the many news articles, and in the tv program?

Has the research been published?

What are the references for these papers?

What is the evidence for this quote, which appears in all the
newspaper reports covering the story:

“Christie’s language patterns stimulate higher than usual activity in
the brain. The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s
writing literally unputdownable.”

Specifically, what experiment was done to show this? Was Christie
compared to other authors work? What was measured in the experiment?
Was it SPECT or PET to look at release of opiates and serotonin
directly? Or was this inferred from bloodflow data?

And what was the experiment done to show that agatha christie will
“raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in
the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.”

What are the jobs of the “linguistic experts from the University of
Warwick, University of Birmingham, London University and King’s
College, London” who have “found a clear pattern of recurring literary
devices that stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain”? How
did they measure this higher than usual activity, or from what other
research measuring brain activity do they infer this, and what do you
mean by brain activity?

And lastly, you are described as “project leader, Dr Roland Kapferer
PhD” and quoted delivering all the scientific information in all the
stories. What do you do for a living? And are you the cultural studies
theorist who wrote this article in the journal Social Analysis :

“It’s a small world after all, or, consultancy and the disneyfication
of thought” Social Analysis, March, 2003 by Roland Kapferer?

my copy deadline is next weds,

many thanks,


Roland Kapferer to ben

Hi Ben,

I’m sorry we were unable to speak on the phone – I hope you received
the message I left you. I’m currently travelling and so I’m forced to
write this from an internet cafe in Australia.

It has been interesting to see the responses to our televsion program
– which was always intended as a provocation of sorts, something which
might set the cat amongst a few stuffy, puffed up pigeons! It has also
been at times hilarious and more than a little depressing to witness
the ways in which newspapers and journalists operate. All that was
written was based on one very quick interview I did with the Sunday
Times. This article was not a particularly accurate report on what I
said and things spiralled downward from there. Indeed, the Guardian
used this interview as the basis for its own shoddy report. Why
investigate something when you can simply repeat what someone else has
already written!

This is not a case of bad science but of good science meeting bad journalism!

Needless to say, “The Agatha Christie Code” was always intended to be
a little tongue in cheek and viewers were supposed to get the irony
with which some of the information was delivered. (Surely the very
title of the program with its obvious reference to the popular
interest in “codes” after the Da Vinci Code should have been a clue!)
This is not to say, of course, that the tv show was not reporting a
serious study – a great deal of careful computer aided research was
undertaken – but NO PET SPECT or fMRI was done. Like Jerry Fodor,, I’m dubious about a lot of
the popular excitement regarding fMRI and PET and it was partly my
intention to lampoon the very idea of PET as a way of understanding
human creativity. This goes also for the discussion of seretonin and
endorphins and all the stuff about “brain activity.”

[Check it out: he is so clever, he was mocking science by overstating
the science in his program to a journalist.]

But I need to get to your questions.

Firstly one thing should be clear from the outset. The research was
funded by 3DD productions a UK television production company headed by
Andrew Higgie. This is an innovative production company which aims to
create thought provoking programs that go against the vulgar trend of
a lot of British tv – reality shows, list shows etc

I think you’ll agree that we were able to introduce in an entertaining
way some concepts which would have been quite unexpected for regular
watchers of ITV1 or Agatha Christie fans – long distance nested
dependencies, syntactic parsing, Lacanian psychoanalysis, discrete
combinatorial systems etc. A remarkable achievment given the poor
condition of the current UK television landscape!

The idea for the program was initially suggested by Andrew Higgie who
hired me to organise the academic side of things. We began from a very
simple question: is there any reason why Agatha Christie has sold more
books than anyone else besides Shakespeare? Is there a scientific way
of understanding her monumental success? I took this starting point as
an opportunity to pose some serious questions about writing and
reading, science and even get a little dig at some popular
universalist-cognitivist notions about the human mind! It seems a lot
of people have taken the bait – This guy really didn’t
get it at all!

The research is indeed serious and it is what should be understood as
“good science.” I understand good science as Albert Einstein
understood it – as a largely un-systematic and opportunistic
enterprise. Good science is made up of multiple complex procedures and
cannot be reduced to rules and methodologies posed in advance without
regard to the socio-cultural and historical conditions in which it is
undertaken. (Of course you will recognise that I am not thereby making
claim for some simple minded relativist position. I argue that the
context of all thought is vital to its imaginary and that no
scientific potential is limited or reducible to its context.
Nevertheless it is entirely necessary for all scientific thought to
examine the context in which its own imagined constructs are possible.
I very much believe in science but not science as it has been twisted
and distorted by positivists.)

Following Paul Feyerabend I would argue that science knows no ‘bare
facts.’ And no such clearly defined process as a ‘scientific method’.
Even the definitions of “experiment”, “evidence” etc vary wildly.

Again, what we have here is not a case of “bad science” but good
science meeting bad journalism!

The statement reported in the press about language patterns which
stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain and release
neurological opiates is of course a speculative proposition based on
some comments by hypntists Paul Mckenna and Richard Bandler. It is of
course guess-work and playful guesswork at that. And why not? There is
no reason that I can see why this is not acceptable as part of a
scientific study. Speculation and guess work is part of all scientific

Christie was compared to other authors by Dr Pernilla Danielsson at
the department of English University of Birmingham using the Bank of
English Corpus and a clustering tool provided by Dr Colin Frayn Dr
Andrew Pyke and Mr Oliver Mason. The Bank of English is a 530 million
word corpus (language database) compiled by Harper Collins, Glasgow
and University of Birmingham. Data was run in the clustering tool
which works on various vector analyses and attempts to cluster the
input. Christie was specifically compared with Conan Doyle and the
British Books section from the Bank of English. Dr Richard Forsyth a
research Fellow in Applied Linguistics from Warwick University also
ran some satistical programs he wrote on Christie and other authors
such as PD James. Dr Marcus Dahl who is a Research Fellow on the John
Ford project at the School of Advanced Study at the Univeristy of
London also made extensive use of a Concordance program (designed by
RJC Watt at Dundee). Dr Willard McArty and Dr Marilyn Deegan at the
Humanities Computing Centre at Kings College also discussed the
project with me and helped me to refine some of the ideas.

The research has not been published yet. Dr Danielsson and Dr Forsyth
both told me they are considering writing papers on their research.

I have a PhD in Philosophy from the Macquarie University, New South
Wales, Australia. I have taught at Macquarie Univerisity and the
University of New South Wales. I have published in the fields of
philosophy, anthropology and art theory. Yes, I am the author of the
article in Social Analysis which you mention. I also work in
television as an associate producer. I have produced another
television program in Australia on religion. I have worked extensively
as a popular musician in Australia and Japan – hence the “Buckaroo
Banzai” reference I read in one blog about the show! I’m happier with
“philosopher” or “musician” than I am with “cultural studies
theorist”. I am certainly NOT a cultural studies theorist – I am, on
the contrary, a serious social scientist.

I hope all this is sufficient answer to your questions. I expect that
you will disagree with lots of what I have written here and I would
heartily welcome any comments you might have. Lets discuss this
further. After all, this was the idea behind The Agatha Christie Code
– to get people to think and discuss the many different ideas it

I hope to hear from you soon,

EDIT 29/11/06:

This is Kapferer’s only response to my piece so far, broadcast on Triple J radio in Australia last Sunday:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I think he makes some very good points early on.

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

88 Responses

  1. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 23, 2006 at 10:39 pm

    steve: i absolutely agree, i wish there was more counting in the world, in every field. even simple stuff like this is really interesting.

  2. Squander Two said,

    January 24, 2006 at 10:14 am

    I have to admit that I did find the press release hilarious. A quite brilliant parody. Bound to go over the heads of most of the public, though.

    But then the idiot screws it all up by claiming that it’s merely an exaggeration of a proper scientific study. Kapferer needed to decide whether he was doing a study or a parody of one. Mixing them is a bad idea, both because of the impression it gives the public and because it makes him look stupid when you realise that half the stuff you thought was brilliant parody, he actually believes.

  3. Michael P. said,

    January 24, 2006 at 10:28 am

    I know it’s a side-topic, but I’m really getting disheartened by the BBC’s quality. Or lack of. Ray, keep emailing them! In fact, respond to that comment and include a link to this discussion – ” Our output must be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested and presented in clear, precise language” – this is clearly bollocks. It took one email from Ben for the guy in charge to say “We made most of it up” Thoroughly tested, my arse!

  4. JohnHankinson said,

    January 24, 2006 at 2:03 pm


    I guess the difference is what the quantative techniques are applied to! Advanced statistical techniques are all very well, but when you’re talking about disciplines that literally do U-turns on their ‘theories’ every 2 years (you know who you are) then something isn’t right.

    I think good science is good science irrespective. You get quack physicists and quack psychologists for example, but I still know which discipline I trust more.

    IMHO there are a lot more ‘hypotheses’ that never develop into ‘scientific theories’ in the social sciences and yet still get into the text books. Of course that’s the nature of dealing with incredibly complex systems like personalities, or populations or economies, but even so…

    As for the BBC – the Child of Our Times series with Winston really gets on my nerves. Watching bloody developmental psychologists state the obvious for an hour with Winston wiggling his moustache in the background has ironically dire effects on my psyche!

  5. Jim Kurth said,

    January 24, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    So this Roland character believes that “Speculation and guess work is part of all scientific practice.” But it is a small part if any part at all. in fact, it’s the “speculation and guess work” that most often gets the scientists that do get into trouble into that trouble. They confuse the order. You speculate. Design your experiment. Get data. Review. Report.
    You don’t get data and then speculate. And you don’t just speculate and call it science.

  6. Jo said,

    January 24, 2006 at 4:45 pm

    I think the ‘obvious’ joke must be the bit where they say that the results are revealed in
    a TV programme – rather than in a peer-reviewed journal etc. etc. ?

  7. John Scott said,

    January 25, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    Hmm… I don’t see the big deal here. The programme (which I did not see) seems to have been a tongue in cheek affair that does actually incolve some good sense. My following of the Bad Science report and correspondence highlights the following:

    The press release was probably not written by Roland Kapferer , so the Times were incorrect to directly quote him in the article about the brain chemistry stuff. Neither he nor the programme claimed it as scientific fact – so blame ITV for that one.

    The analysis of Christie’s books appears to have been done in a fairly academic way. Anybody like myself who has volunteered to take part in psychology experiments as a way to earn a spare fiver while at uni (Edinburgh – so a serious department) is well aware of the ridiculous nature of much of experimental linguistics, etc. The study in the show appears to be a genuine study, and in fact the observed redults seem pretty reasonable (like much of psychology, it comes down to “well, duh!”).

    So yes, maybe the joke wasn’t funny, and in fact fell flat on it’s arse, but it’s hardly a high crime. By the look of it the “good science meets bad reporting” is maybe more like “mediocre science meets mediocre tv production”. Put it this way, if the presss release hadn’t offered the conjecture of the hypnotists as “result”, then would this even have made a blip on the Bad Science radar? I think not. Hardly up there with “Dr” Gillian or pentawater…

  8. Yoginin (posting from somewhere else said,

    January 25, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    If anyone clicks the link given by hanne above

    (,,1692222,00.html ) I have to completely put my foot down about the comments regarding henna.

    Black henna is NOT henna it is black hair dye which is applied to the skin as a paint. It has nothing to do with henna.

    Henna is from the plant Lawsonia Inermis. It contains Lawsone which binds with skin keratin and turns red/brown as it oxidises.

    Anyone saying they are selling black henna is putting concentrated black hair dye on your skin, and as you can expect there are allergic reactions to the paraphenyladiamine (might have spelt that slightly wrong). But natural henna causes no such reaction. However with natural henna, there are a number of rare complications related to Vitamin G6PD deficiency and some other rare conditions.

    The media consistently confuse natural henna tattoos with black henna tattoos and it makes me lose faith in the media (and I have to say a number of scinetific journals) that they refuse to acknowledge that ‘Natural Henna’ is natural and ‘black henna’ is not henna at all but a chemical dye, called black henna because of the fashion for tribal syle temporary tattoos.

    GRRR sorry a bit of a rant, but how can you say natural is bad and chemical is good, when it is the chemical hair dye that causes all the problems and the natural henna which doesn’t?

  9. Don Cox said,

    January 25, 2006 at 4:32 pm

    I think the point is that the people making the TV program didn’t care at all whether the story was good or bad science, or whether or not the experiments actually happened. They were producing entertainment on a scientific theme, as in X-files or any other fantasy.

    The aim is to keep the viewer watching until the adverts come on, not to educate or report on actual research.

    They would apply the same carelessness of fact to a program about history, music or any other topic.

    People who do not care whether what they say is true or not, but just say whatever has the desired effect on their hearers, are usually called compulsive liars, or “bullshitters”. Scientists have shown that 90% of people working in the media industry are of this type.

  10. Andrew Clegg said,

    January 25, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    This whole affair amuses me. I’m an NLP researcher as in Natural Language Processing (i.e. computational linguistics, encompassing the techniques they used to do the corpus-based analysis of the writing in this ‘study’).

    It always annoys people who work in the perfectly decent academic discipline of NLP when the same acronym pops up meaning something totally different in dubious self-help contexts.

    And here we have the first TV/newspaper reportage of natural language processing I can remember seeing for a long time, and what do we find bolted on to it? Some dubious conclusions courtesy of the *other* NLP.

    Bloody typical…


  11. JohnHankinson said,

    January 25, 2006 at 5:47 pm

    Andrew – another of these ‘overloaded’ terms is Kinesiology.

    Roughly speaking, some people use it to mean the study of how movement of the body affects health, whereas a large number of pseudoscientific practitioners used a similarly named ‘applied kinesiology’ as a ridiculous technique to diagnose various ailments, allergies etc.

    Another word with a similar problem is ‘theory’!

  12. Gerry Hart said,

    January 26, 2006 at 10:18 am

    I watched the programme in question – unlike so many of you here – and I thought it
    was fantastic. Here was a truly original programme that tried to do something new and fresh. The academic team Dr. Kapferer put together was of a very high calibre.
    It is so easy to sink the boot, as everyone loves to do on this blog, but Dr. Kapferer is clearly open and transperent about what they were trying to achieve. I have read his letter to Ben many times. ITV should be applauded in doing something other than trashy reality television.

    Ben Goldacre is very much Queen of the Bitchy contingent. I suspect he is more interested in his own celebrity than anything else. Ben, why don’t you get out of the comfort zone of hiding behind your computer, stop writing in the supercilious way you do, and try and make an original television programme……..No. I thought you wouldn’t.

  13. janey said,

    January 26, 2006 at 10:31 am

    Gerry: that’s a bit of a strange response. Nobody here is writing about whether it was a good TV program, this whole blog and discussion is about about whether the media coverage was misleading. Did you see anything about brain chemistry in the TV show? No. Fin.

  14. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 26, 2006 at 10:41 am

    I thought it was a perfectly reasonable TV show, but that the press release, media coverage, and Kapferer’s response were all completely farcical, for the reasons carefully detailed above. I’m sorry you found it so hard to tell the difference, Gerry.

  15. tom p said,

    January 26, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    I’ll bet a pound to a penny that ‘Gerry’ works for a TV production company. Probably for the ones who put this programme out. He does, after all, imply that it’s easy to get a TV show commissioned and made and the only thing styopping Ben (or indeed, by implication, anyone else) from doing so is laziness and cowardice.

  16. Gerry Hart said,

    January 26, 2006 at 2:46 pm

    Sorry to disappoint Tom but I have no connection whatsover with television. I’m a commercial pilot if you really want to know (currently studying for my helicopter license). And an avid Agatha Christie fan. Tom is indicative of this site. You all appear so bitter and angry, looking for conspiracies around every corner.
    And even to call this blog “The Mystery of the Steaming Turd”…. charming.

    The simple point I was making in my previous missive was that it is quite difficult to bring new ideas to life; be it a film, a documentary, a painting, a book etc. Its too easy to be so viscious and critical. Lighten up….it was a very watchable, very enjoyable programme.

  17. superburger said,

    January 26, 2006 at 3:11 pm

    In response to Gerry (post 64 and 66).

    I agree that making a watchable and enoyable programmes is a tough job, but would you find, say, a history programme in which you were told that the Norman invasion of England took place in 1952? I’m sure you could make a thrilling programme, with Simon Schama (sp?) striding around talking about William the Conqueror coming over on a SeaFrance ferry, then driving to Hastings in a bull nosed Morris Minor, with a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. Great TV, but completley innacurate and an insult to anyone with knowledge or passion for history.

    So, when science is presented so badly, it does raise the hackles of anyone who cares about science.

    There is so much imaganitive, vital, research being done by scientists the world over. I’d love to see some of the fascinating ares of current research being presented to the public in an enjoyable, entertaining way. It would take, to paraphrase previous posts, a case of good science meeting good tv production values………

  18. Gerry Hart said,

    January 26, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    Superburger, you make a very good point. And I agree with you. But I don’t think
    the Agatha Code was so wildy inaccurate as would a programme telling us that the Norman Invasion took place in 1952.

    I watched the programme again just now (as it is causing quite a debate) as I have it on TiVo. The voice over from Joanna Lumley clearly makes the point that everything the academic team is presenting is
    no more than their thesis. They are not claiming it as fact; just what their analysis has
    discovered… Can’t this blog be a little more generous? Just a little?!…..

  19. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 26, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    geryy: i’m not quite clear why you’re so hung up on whether it was a good program. do you think that the many stories about brain chemistry and agatha christie were in any way justified from the content of the research? it’s pretty simple, and in fact, my very point is, it had nothing to do with the program. the program is a completely different matter. we’re talking about the press release, the media interviews, and the press coverage, and the fact that this bore little or no relationship to the research and the program.

  20. Mark C. said,

    January 26, 2006 at 4:42 pm

    I wish these reply posts wouldn’t be so hard on the social sciences, I would say economics is pretty useful…

  21. Ian Brooks said,

    January 27, 2006 at 1:34 am

    I wonder, perchance, if Gerry’s issue stems from one of the very facts that has been debated here. Poorly represented “science”, including eveything from this TV show, to talking heads claiming that “Scientists found that…” or “Scientists discover the gene for X” (a pet peeve), often leads to great confusion in the minds of the public about what is being debated in the first place. To many who read this page there are obvious connections (and obvious lack of connections) between such things as fMRI and a change in neurotransmitter release. However, the public don’t understand this, and in fact likely don’t even know what on earth is being said. Science-speak is a language that can take years to learn. We scientists need to communicate what we mean in a langauge that the laity can understand. As Nature and Science have been pushing recently, we really need to increase our outreach (via the media) to educate the public about what is really being done in the world of science. A career goal of mine actually….

    anyway…sorry if this is long winded, but as yer man Dr. Wanker said, us scientists are lazy, bigoted wasters, so I’m not really utterly exhausted and enjoying another lost evening spent in a lab slaving over a hot PCR machine….

  22. P.L.Hayes said,

    January 27, 2006 at 9:42 am

    “We scientists need to communicate what we mean in a langauge that the laity can understand.”

    Impossible. Science is irreducibly complex.

  23. raygirvan said,

    January 27, 2006 at 11:09 am

    “But I don’t think the Agatha Code was so wildy inaccurate as would a programme telling us that the Norman Invasion took place in 1952”.

    True. A closer analogy might be:

    I put out a press release about a forthcoming documentary, saying that a team of experts have used the latest scientific wreck-location techniques to finally solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. Newspapers and the BBC report accordingly.

    When the documentary screens, the first half involves a team of aeronautical engineers analysing in detail the specifications and aerodynamic characteristics of her Lockheed 10E Electra. The second half reports the views of clairvoyants who read the engineers’ report, then purport to pinpoint the precise location of her lost aircraft by channelling her spirit and dowsing over a map of the Pacific.

    “Finally,” says the Joanna Lumley voiceover, “The mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is solved”.

    Would you be happy with that scenario?

  24. ACH said,

    January 27, 2006 at 11:39 am

    Ray, it sounds like essential viewing! when are you pitching it to the programme commissioners?


  25. Ken May said,

    January 27, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    “Could we have a name-and-shame page, maybe called “Experts” (including the quote marks), with a simple table listing these people? ”

    That will open up a whole can of worms, especially in Economics.

    How about the LSE IT Department for their work on ID card costing? Not a single member of the working party has had a job in commercial computing! And it shows.

  26. DarwinDocument said,

    January 27, 2006 at 11:06 pm

    A small personal lament,

    Both my parents are NLP practicioners and today I found my mum using a homeopathic remedy as a pain killer.

    My tounge is scarred, badly.

  27. Terry Hamblin said,

    January 30, 2006 at 7:35 pm

    Don’t you think it a little cruel allowing social scientists to betray themselves out of their own mouths? I used to sit on a scientific ethical committee with a social scientist as chairman. Baiting the chairman was all too easy; like hitting sixes off English slow bowlers.

  28. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 31, 2006 at 1:32 pm

    Amelia Earhart showed up in 1995 on [Star Trek Voyager] when it was revealed that she and a male friend were abducted by aliens.

  29. Hatter said,

    January 31, 2006 at 3:08 pm

    I could never read her books, the movies didn’t do much for me, but I really enjoyed the Poirot series. I suspect that David Suchet was a deciding factor.

  30. Hatter said,

    January 31, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Mark is economics useful?

    Ian, Ben has mentioned this before, but why is it acceptable to use art jargon on the arts pages and economics jargon in the finance pages, but have to ‘translate’ into dumbspeak for science pages.

    I think in all areas jargon should only be used where absolutely necessary, and things should be explained as simply as possible without compromising the integrity of the facts.

    In particular I’d like to smack people using business/economics jargon when there are actually real English words that say exactly what they’re saying with their jargon. Why the need to invent new and often ridiculous words? To make economics sound clever?

  31. Pierre said,

    January 31, 2006 at 9:36 pm

    Is “unputdownable” a commonly used term over there in the UK? Or am I missing another example of irony in a subject that already has its fill of the absurd.

    In other news, I have found evidence that the reason I eat a bowl of soup until it’s completely empty, in one sitting, is that contact with the soup spoon causes my brain to release serotonin and endorphins, and these neurological opiates result in the spoon being literally unputdownable.

    My next step is to seek to replicate these experiments with other eating utensils to discover whether their surfaces cause similar neurological activity among eaters.

  32. Amy G. Dala » links for 2006-02-01 said,

    February 1, 2006 at 2:20 pm

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  33. Bill Cook said,

    February 5, 2006 at 8:41 am

    After watching The Agatha Christie Code it struck me that all the programme makers had actually said was that “Agatha Christie sold a lot of books because people enjoyed reading them very much”, but dressed it in pseudo-science and New Age psychobabble to stretch it to an hour’s programming.

  34. Saifedean Ammous said,

    February 16, 2006 at 3:41 am

    Has it occured to these geniuses that Agatha Christie sold more books than anyone else because:

    1) She was a darn good writer
    2) Someone is bound to sell more books than everyone else

    Liverpool have won more League titles than everyone else not because they manage to hypnotise referees into calling decisions their way; someone is bound to achieve better than the others in any field…

  35. alif said,

    June 16, 2009 at 3:39 am

    Comment no. 30:
    > I was sorry to discover that Macquarie University does exist

    Yes, it does — its maths department is very highly regarded, and with good reason. Can’t say the same for its philosophy department, though.

    Comment no. 9:
    > “educated beyond the capacity for analytical thought”

    This was said by Peter Medawar, in a Mind review of Teilhard de Chardin’s `The Phenomenon of Man’:

    > … the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.

    We’ve all met them. Arseholes.

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  37. Pequenas anotações de viagens virtuais 10 - Uma Malla Pelo Mundo said,

    October 24, 2012 at 2:54 am

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  38. NLP gave me headaches… | An unauthorized autobiography of science said,

    May 23, 2014 at 10:34 am

    […] to say: the public are confused about science, not only for the reasons Ben Goldacre states in Bad science blog – ‘’the public are confused about science, for the simple reason that the media is full […]