Fish On The Radio

October 25th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, equazen, fish oil, onanism | 63 Comments »

Don’t plan your day around it or anything but there is a v v v big fish thing on Radio 4’s You And Yours tomorrow, 30 minutes, focussing on the shenanigans about the trial, no wait, initiative, no, study, we’re measuring, well, we’re, yes, hang on yes we’re measuring results, no, hang on… in Durham.

It should be pretty good, if I do say so myself.

Listen here:

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63 Responses

  1. Neil Desperandum said,

    October 29, 2006 at 11:57 am

    As a head of science at an English secondary school maybe I can add a few comments to some earlier posts.

    post 26
    GCSE science is compulsory in England and Wales (along with Maths and English), so GCSE numbers aren’t declining. However, science A-level numbers are certainly declining, and the Government and learned societies are worried about that.

    The boring nature of the current GCSE specifications have been identified as the main problem, so the GCSE science course has been changed to make it more relevant to more pupils, more engaging and hopefully more interesting, so more students will be encouraged to continue to A-level. We started teaching the new science GCSEs this autumn.

    A big feature of the new GCSEs is “How Science Works”, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Contrary to suggestions in posts 19-21, the nature of scienvctific enquiry has been a large part of school science for at least 15 years. Even Primary school pupils now understand the concenpt of a “fair test”. But How Science Works is now even more important, with the express aim of training pupils to be consumers of science (rather than practitioners, which only a few will be). In other words to spot Bad Science when they see it.

    As part of How Science Works we now have to teach reliability, validity, replicates, means, range, various kinds of error, accuracy, precision, correlations and causal relations, control groups, placebos, evaluations, the societal aspects of evidence, authority, political and other bias, and more.

    So I think science education in the UK is moving in the right direction and many of the issues raised in the Bad Science discussions are being addressed. Of course we’ll have to wait a few years to see if it makes any difference…

    So this also suggests another thing professional scientists can do (post 33): Produce materials/ideas/data for science teachers to use in their lessons. The new GCSE textbooks are quite good (and the one we use has a nice page on MMR compltely demolishing Wakefiled), but we can always use up to date and accurate stories. I’ve used the Durham fish story in my lessons, but for the majority of teachers who don’t follow Bad Science religously, a teacher and pupil-friendly resource could be very useful. Stories that make people look foolish are likely to be winners with pupils.

    If anyone does have the time and inclination, I suggest contacting the Association for Science Education (www., which is the body that represents science teachers in the UK. They already produce many resources and may be keen to collaborate on/host some Bad Science teachering stuff.

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 29, 2006 at 12:07 pm

    hi neil, that’s the coolest blog nick i’ve ever seen.

    should have publicised it more and will do now that you’ve reminded me, but i did do some bad science teaching resources with NESTA a while ago:

    could you give me the name of the sci textbook that has a page on wakefield? or even email/fax a photocopy if you had a mo. would be great to see.

  3. Andrew Clegg said,

    October 31, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Re those teaching aids, I wish he’d had things like that when I was a kid. Not for my own benefit (naturally) but because the world would surely be a saner place if people grew up a bit more critical.


  4. jjbp said,

    November 4, 2006 at 10:43 am

    There is a HEFCE funded initiative out there called “Chemistry for our future” which is looking to push the concept of careers in chemistry through providing materials, uni/lab visits, experiments, or anything that excites teenage minds. It’s all run by the Royal Society for Chemistry with the help of universities, and from the inside of this scheme I can say it is sufficiently well funded to make an impact, I reckon, given the right ideas. A previous post on one of the Bad Science fish oil threads mentioned the scheme’s North East launch event in that den of iniquity, Durham. I didnt notice anyone canvassing teachers about the fish oil debate but then again I was sort of busy expecially when the venue got worried about how dangerous the demos were (NB venue: a Science Learning Centre, theme of demos: “this isnt too dangerous for schools”, demonstrators: university chemistry lecturers). Anyway, if there is someone out there who would like to design a chemistry-based school kids activity which shows the importance of controls, experimental design and the like, then it should be eminently possible to offer it to schools in the Durham area… which sounds vaguely subversive or necessary depending on your viewpoint.

  5. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 5, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    Come to think, I was raised on Haliborange vitamin C tablets, and look at me now. Oh dear.

  6. Noah Quiescence said,

    November 5, 2006 at 6:42 pm


    how could I possibly hope to begin to express the gut-churning disgust and anger I feel as a parent under the obtuse tons of pressure from every corner to continue to purchase expensive fish oil supplements for my son (who must have one of the most clear-cut cases of ADHD ever seen). I am so angry.

    I approached the whole issue ages ago with as scientific a mindset as my “Research Methods In Psychology” module at Uni allowed. I did a lot of research on the net. I studied the composition of the various brands available and their respective claims. I calculated the necessary dose according to my son’s weight (as suggested) and spent twice as much on the three months recommended period to “build up the levels” and bigged the capsules up with my son no end.

    I know that the claim that mothers know best (I cannot face to listen to the R4 programme myself: sorry, I am sick to the back teeth of this whole business) has incensed some posters, but in the absence of scientific trials, please indulge me and my close observation of my child: the fish oils have never made any difference whatsoever in my child’s symptoms. However, there has been a significant effect on my finances.

    The hysteria is such that – paradoxically – the placebo effect is taking place in the adults my son has been in contact with. Their simply surreal claims, after being told that he has been taking the supplements, that he is “better” on the strength of a few minutes or hours spent with him just make me feel like hitting them with a heavy frying pan.

    Let me tell you straight, and from the frontline: if you are not seen by teachers etc. as giving your children fish oils, you are made to feel that you are practically abusing them and it has become virtually compulsory.

    And so I continue to shell out on something (not Equazem, mind – I despise everything about them – but I have found an equally expensive and “pure” product from a competitor, and feel slightly less dirty) that I know to be worthless and irrelevant.

    I am minded to tell my scientifically-minded (it may have been all our experiments, and growing things, and dissecting sharks’ heads and lambs’ testicles) and rather sophisticated 11-year-old ithat it is in fact a huge con but that we have to play the game until the craze is over and that he must be patient and continue to swallow the emperor’s new capsules.

    And don’t get me started on diet and Adhd….

    Ben, you are magnificent, utterly priceless and completely indispensable: when I wake up in the middle of the night with all sorts of undesirable thoughts, I creep downstairs and reconnect with my sanity through your work.

  7. Delster said,

    November 10, 2006 at 12:29 pm

    Neil, Post 51

    “But How Science Works is now even more important, with the express aim of training pupils to be consumers of science (rather than practitioners, which only a few will be). In other words to spot Bad Science when they see it.”

    I think a better aim would be to train them all to be capable of being practitioners even if they don’t end up going into it full time. Surely it’s better to aim for the highest possible level of knowledge rather than having the aim of making them slightly more critical “comsumers” of (insert subject here).

    Don’t get me wrong, i know it’s not you setting the new course standards, but surely we should aim higher?

    I also disagree with teaching a general GCSE science rather than individual subjects such as biology, chemistry & physics.

    I did a combined science subject before going on to make my choices for the old O level exams and it gave me a taster for the various subjects meaning i could make a better choice of subject. I feel that teaching general science at a young age would lead more kid’s into taking a specific subject at GCSE level.

    I ended up with all 3 subjects at both O level and Scottish Higher level (kind of the old A levels) but had a distinct preference for Biology after i’d done general science. This lead me to make it my first choice.

  8. Delster said,

    November 10, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    Just to clarify a point above, by giving the option of specific subject GCSEs you give an incentive to the person who loves biology but hates physics & vice versa to actually go on and study the subject they enjoy & possibly have apptitude in.

  9. Neil Desperandum said,

    November 11, 2006 at 9:43 pm


    To take your points in reverse order.

    I may have been unclear in my first post about GCSE. Science is a compulsory subject throughout compulsory schooling in England and Wales (i.e up to age 16). In secondary schools that usually means biology, chemistry and physics lessons, though there are different teaching models in different schools and due to a lack of specialists physics may not be taught by a physicist.

    The national science tests at age 14 (the SAT) is a “science” exam, but has questions on biology, chemistry, physics and scientific enquiry. There is more flexibility at GCSE, but all exams cover biology, chemistry and physics, and you usually do separate papers in these subjects. It is illegal to give one of the subjects up (so you can’t do say biology and chemistry only).

    Personally I’m not a fan of this, and I think the three science subjects should be separate and not all compulsory (like in Scotland). I think this would raise the status of each subject and give pupils more choice.

    On your first point.

    In the latest review leading to the current GCSEs, teachers, scientists and industrialists were all consulted and were pretty unanimous that teaching everyone to be a science practitioner was wrong. The “traditional” content was irrelevant and uninteresting to most pupils. What everyone wanted instead was pupils who could think and who thought science was interesting and relevant.

    This is not a lower aim. Quite the reverse. Knowledge is easy; critical thinking is hard. A famous recent article, in I think the Mail, compared a current exam question about an experimental design with an old O-level question about the Kidney. The Kidney question was supposed to be harder, but was in fact straight factual recall, while the modern question was more challenging, requiring greater thinking skills.

  10. Delster said,

    November 13, 2006 at 1:38 pm


    We’re coming at the same thing from differing angles here.

    That last paragraph re the exam question. In my view a practicioner of science would be the one that would need to know about experimental design.

    Also the Mail (if it was them), with that question, were comparing systems against items which is not a valid comparison. I did my O & A levels over 20 years ago and we had experimental design questions too. I dare say that modern papers, esp in subjects like biology, will have questions requiring basic factual recall.

    When you said above that it’s ilegal to give up one of the subjects, was that untill age 14 or age 16….. ?

    And we’re agreed that they should be seperate subjects…. let them concentrate on the subjects they like and or have aptitude for.

  11. Neil Desperandum said,

    November 13, 2006 at 9:39 pm

    Age 16.

    Sorry for the confusion in terminology – this has come from the government ;). A practitioner of science means someone who’s going to study science at university, or “do” science professionally. A “consumer” is everyone else, who won’t need the equation for photosynthesis but should know what a kilojoule or a placebo is.

  12. Delster said,

    November 14, 2006 at 10:59 am

    at age 16 i was sitting O Level exams in Physics and Chemistry and had (briefly) dropped biology to concentrate on other subjects. It’s crazy that they are forcing subjects at that age still.

    Mind you don;t get me onto the phonetic way of teaching reading!!

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