Kick the habit with wacky wave energy

April 8th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science | 60 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday April 8, 2006
The Guardian

I often get hassled for writing about bad science in the media, and in products, and in alternative therapies, but leaving the mainstream big pharmaceutical companies alone. Clearly the main reason for this is that I am on a large honorary retainer from a shady organisation representing the major global biotech firms, and have been told in no uncertain terms by senior figures in medicine and science that I’ll never work in this town again if I attack any of the major financial players.

In fact that’s not true, and as if by magic my first ever boss in medicine, a professor of medicine, has sent in an excellent bad science candidate from a major study on a significant new drug, because science is all about reading the full paper, and being critical of the evidence, and that’s what medics and scientists do all the time.

The problem is, I’m still feeling slightly guilty about last week’s column. There’s rarely an excuse for forcing anyone to cope with concepts like statistical significance, clustered samples, and Bonferroni’s correction for multiple comparisons on a Saturday morning over breakfast.

And as I browse through the week’s bad science emails, there are so many easy ways out. I could attack something obvious and easy like the Bio-G Chip Card (R), designed by scientists to neutralise the tobacco wave energy patterns in your fags, now available in the UK for only 35 quid. “Look and Feel Better, Improve your Health and Lifestyle, Raise Your Self-Esteem, Start Saving Money in only 10 minutes!” they say. “Nicotine, the main reason for this addiction, will be eliminated from your body and you will become free from this nasty habit! Forever!” I’m honestly trying to ignore it, but it’s a chip that you put in your fag packet, and chips are science, as everyone knows. They have something to do with energy and waves.

“With its wave energy the disc is acting on tobacco thus changing its burning pattern, which results in a reduced CO and increased CO2 production. The Bio-G Chip Card (R) is to be inserted either between the cellophane and the cardboard box or into the pack itself.” It can treat “up to 100,000 cigarettes” and “the full neutralisation effect is achieved in approx 10 min”. And that’s full neutralisation, like on Star Trek. “With the Bio-G Chip Card (R), the smoke itself becomes harmless, both for the smokers themselves, and for the individuals in their surroundings inhaling it.” It’s even good for the kids: “Non-smokers are no longer disturbed by the smell of smoke or butts, and remember, they are mostly children.” But the greatest breakthrough is for addicts. “The existing nicotine will be eliminated from the body, and the new one will not enter the blood. In that very period the addiction disappears completely.”

The problem is, I’d feel then like I was participating in the creation of the myth that science is only interesting if it’s wacky, when really I’d rather say something about Channel 4’s Hypnosurgery Live event next week. So you see my problem.

In fact, you’d better hope the hypnosurgery is worth writing about, or that Dr Gillian McKeith PhD says something unusually foolish; because otherwise I have a very worthy, nerdy story about a mainstream academic article, which generalises into a largely untold story about how proper medical research can be distorted by financial interests in a subtle and ingenious way that can only be caught with careful statistical observation.

It will involve funnel plots, meta-analyses, corrections for multiple comparisons and the concept of trial registration, and if it makes you angry you will probably also have to explain these concepts in a stern letter to your MP. It’s in the hands of the hypnotist.

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60 Responses

  1. Woolly said,

    April 12, 2006 at 9:31 pm

    1. “About 5% is the number of people, who say they want to quit whatever is their drug of choice, who actually do want to quit. The rest haven’t really decided to quit yet.”

    Excuse me, Hatter, but where does this 5% figure come from ? I’d like to know how a researcher concludes that despite their protestations to the contrary, someone “actually” doesn’t want to give up ? Because they failed to do so ? That would be circular reasoning, wouldn’t it ?

    My point is that people are more complicated than “Want something”, or “Don’t want something”.
    People tend to be split 80-20, or 70-30, or even worse 50-50… which makes behavioral change difficult and unpredictable. It’s not about what people “really” want”, it’s about the balance of motivating factors.

    2. Delster, consider this hypothetical situation. A murderer serves his sentence, repents and re-trains as a doctor, goes on to save 250 lives through his skill and dedication. So if you’d killed him in prison, wouldn’t you have “effectively taken the lives” of those 250 people ?

    A civilised society allows people the oportunity to redeem themselves.

    Not to mention the fact that the “convicted murderer” might have been wrongly convicted in the first place. Does happen, you know.


    PS Nicotine patches don’t have to prescribed. No-one in the NHS is “pushing” patches. They just work for some people, that’s all.

    There seems to be lot of mistrust of the NHS out there. Are we the baddies now ?

  2. Delster said,

    April 13, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Hi Woolly,

    very aware of the problems with capital punishment.

    Anybody got figures on number of murderers who then go do something life saving v number who reoffend in some way? I very much doubt that the comparison would be on the side of good.

    And also aware of the problems with wrongfull convictions, having said that with modern forensics the chances of wrongfull convictions are much reduced.

    I think you’d be closer to say that what “this” civilised society does is allow them to reoffend or redeem. Of course the majority really do neither, they just return to an average state neither saving nor taking lives.

    I’m not great at presenting arguments like this in writing but i will dig out comments from someone who was and either post them or send them on as we’ve kind of strayed from the subject a bit.

    As for the NHS being the baddies…. i waited 18 months to have an arthroscopy on my knee so that they could diagnose exactly what the physiotherapists had been telling them was wrong…. apparently i had the perfect exacple of this specific injury as they kept showing my knee to every student who came through the place.

    Then after diagnosing what had already been diagnosed they then said 18 months for the actual operation to fix it…. i’m still waiting after 5 years and will probably have to go throught the whole process again as i’ve been out the country for 2 years.

    the main problem with the NHS is the amount of paper pushing that takes place, i don’t have the exact figures but a hell of a lot is spent on admin rather than treatment. I know you need a certain degree of administration but the various people i know who work in the NHS say it’s getting worse all the time.

  3. Kate said,

    April 13, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    Hi Delster,

    I always used to smoke outside, so I don’t see why other people can’t do that – I always hated coming home stinking of smoke, even when I was a smoker. If pubs want to be welcoming to smokers, they can put up some kind of roofing outside to keep the rain off and provide a heater (she says tolerantly). I’d rather people went outside than areas were smoking or non-smoking inside – in a mixed group of smokers and non-smokers, someone is always going to end up losing out, either by having to sit in a smoky room or by craving a cigarette and not being able to have one. I would have actually welcomed it as a smoker, when it wouldn’t have been weird to say “I’m just going outside for a cigarette”, rather than weighing up whether lighting a cigarette and potentially annoying my friends was more urgent than not having a cigarette all evening and wanting to chew my own hand off.

    In any place other than pubs and restaurants, there aren’t segregated areas and this already happens. No one smokes actually in their office any more, after all – they either have to go outside or into smoking rooms. (Not that I’ve ever seen one of these mythical places anywhere I’ve worked – in my current office, smokers have to go out to a kind of bus shelter in the woods behind the bikesheds. It’s like being back at school.)

    I don’t agree with capital punishment full stop, so I guess I would never agree with it. However, I suppose what I was trying to say is that I don’t agree with policy decisions being taken on the cost to the state, rather than the morality of the situation.

    Don’t know how to fix the NHS or whether even to believe it’s broken. It’s been a political football for as long as I can remember. My own experience with the NHS has been generally positive – I had 4-month wait for an appointment for a scan, but as soon as that was done, it all moved really fast.

    (I’m really enjoying this discussion, by the way – it’s making me think!)

  4. BorisTheChemist said,

    April 13, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    There are better battlegrounds for the capital punishment debate than the rehabilitation of offenders anyway – for instance, any justice system can never be 100% correct so that means that a proportion of innocent individuals will be killed by a state that operates the death penalty – the state and the justice system it operates is then a murderer so how can sit in judgement over others?

  5. Delster said,

    April 13, 2006 at 3:56 pm

    Kate – glad it’s making you think…. thats a skill that seems to be dying out 🙂 I have seen a smoking room in a place before but they are rare. If you walk past a pub over here (Eire) now of an evening all the smokers are huddled outside getting their fix…. some places with the space have put up awnings etc for them…. even with heaters!

    I know several nurses and others within the NHS and they continually complain about the seemingly ever increasing paperwork.

    Your right when you say capital punishment should never be a cost driven decision. My argument is puely from the point of protecting other people once they come out of prison again.

    Boris, we kind of touched on that a couple of messages back. yes no justice system is 100% infallable but with modern methods things are much better than when we did used to have the death penalty so the problem, while not totally cured, would be reduced. At the end of the day the question that has to be asked is is it better to mistakenly kill one innocent than to have murderers reoffending X number of times.

    It’s a very tricky moral question, to which i don;t have the perfect answer. maybe cut and dried cases would be given the death penalty while others where they are still convicted but with enought uncertainties to cast a slight doubt then incarceration might be the answer…… wiser heads than mine would have to establish the criteria.

  6. guthrie said,

    April 14, 2006 at 10:16 am

    And how many murderers actually re-offend when they are 20 years older? Not many, I woudl bet.
    By the time they kill people, in many cases the criminal has been involved in much pettier crime for ages. The key is intervention before they become a muderer.
    (this of course does not include those who murder suddenly on a whim, or for money like in Agatha Christie books or suchlike.)

    As for the NHS- you should take it back under public ownership and stop messing about privatising it piecemeal. That way you would get rid of a lot of the paperwork involved in costing things out, keeping track of things etc etc.

  7. Delster said,

    April 14, 2006 at 12:39 pm


    there have been quite a few cases where violent offenders have been released and committed murder. Off hand i don;t know if they were alreay murderers or lesser forms of violent offences but 20 years? most of them serve no where near that.

    NHS, i think it should be sort of privatised. Pay tax for it as normal and give it to a company to run as the NHS does. You can bet they will cut out the paperwork and make it run like a business which is what should be done.

    Same thing happened when BT was privatised (i worked for them at the time) lead times for installations dropped rtight down and service improved greatly. I think it might well work for the NHS as well.

  8. Andy said,

    April 14, 2006 at 9:38 pm

    FYI Re comment 10.
    If you run Firefox then the Linkification extension will do this for you automatically. A very handy little add on.

  9. Roger Macy said,

    April 16, 2006 at 8:21 pm

    pv said, way back at post 23, “I did ask the advice of some ex-smokers how they coped during the first few weeks after they’d stopped smoking, which was enlightening and extremely helpful.”
    Thirty years ago, after twenty years’ heavy smoking, and another failed attempt at giving up, an acquaintance said ‘I bet you tried to give up at the end of a packet?’ ‘Well, sure.’ Her advice was: ‘Social smokers can give up at the end of a packet. True addicts can only give up with an assured supply.’ This, I accept, might have been even smarter grandmother-psychology than it appeared – it gave me a reason to believe again that my willpower was not simply inadequate.
    But my question is: what happened to the graded filters that worked for me ? Not only did they separate the hand-habit from the nicotine use, they had a hidden ruse. You had to explain to everyone, over two months, why you were using these dumb filters. That meant telling everyone the day you were going to give up. Nicotine patches aren’t so smart and require the NHS to supply the nicotine FOC for x months, whereas I had to keep paying for my fags through the nose.

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