The year in nonsense

December 19th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in annual roundup, bad science, big pharma | 27 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 19 December 2009

It’s been a vintage year for dodgy science in government. We saw reports on cocaine that were disappeared, dodgy evidence to justify DNA retention, and some government advisors who estimated the cost of piracy at 10% of GDP, to media applause, and then failed to tell everyone they’d got the figure wrong by 1000%.

There were fantasies from the security services of using mass surveillance to spot terrorists from their communication patterns, although the basic maths of screening predicts a crippling rate of false positives when trawling for such rare outcomes, and of course the government’s claim to have captured £50m of heroin in Afghanistan which would “starve the Taleban of funding”: in reality the haul was worth £100,000, while last year the export value of opiates at border prices with neighbouring countries for Afghan traffickers was roughly £2bn.

A £6m Home Office drugs education study was published with no results, because it was so flawed it couldn’t produce any, we saw MPs being foolish about cervical screening and moon magic, and then when they didn’t like the scientific evidence they got from Professor David Nutt, they sacked him. If politicians want us to take them seriously on the evidence for global warming, they have to show they care about evidence everywhere. It’s only slightly worse in Iraq, where they’ve just spent $32m on 800 sciencey looking dowsing rods to detect bombs.

We saw the benefits of Tamiflu overstated in the Parmageddon coverage, of course, but also uncovered more windows into how evidence is distorted. Industry funded studies, it turns out, are massively more likely to get into the bigger, more respected academic journals, when compared with government funded studies, even when there is no difference in methodological rigour and quality between them: all that lovely advertising revenue, perhaps. In Australia Elsevier went all out and simply produced a whole pretend academic journal just for Merck.

On the regulatory front, we discovered that despite trial registration being supposedly compulsory, a quarter of the trials in the world’s most important journals still aren’t registered, and the MHRA took 21 months to change the side effects labels on statins, because one drug company objected (I’ll find out which one by next year). The only good news is that the industry have failed to stop Indian companies making cheap copies Aids drugs for people in developing countries.

In Aids news, Christine Maggiore, poster person for the success of refusing Aids medication, died tragically of pneumonia, and we saw Aids denialism promoted in an Elsevier academic journal (now retracted) and in a foolish feature film, shown by (although they pulled it) and promoted in – of all places – the Spectator.

Elsewhere, alongside the usual barrage of PR reviewed data, we saw that exercise makes you fat, coffee makes you see dead people, and Facebook causes cancer, while housework prevents it, in women. There was industry-standard front page wrongness about vaccines (and the Irish Daily Mail campaigning for the cervical cancer vaccine, while the UK Daily Mail campaigned against it). We saw a man in a coma communicating with a method shown not to help people communicate, hideous distortion of research on rape, the earth’s magnetic field, and much more, although we also found that around half of all academic press releases fail to flag up studies’ flaws.

In libel news, longside the Trafigura episode, Peter Wilmshurst is being sued for criticising the results of a cardiology trial he himself was working on, Simon Singh is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association, but now everyone knows how dodgy their claims are, and the Guardian got £365,000 of our £535,000 costs successfully defending a libel case from Matthias rath, which means the cost of winning is just slightly less than the average cost of a home in the UK.

Lastly, lawyers from LBC 97.3 FM threatened me with copyright law for posting a foolish anti-MMR broadcast, and as a result, the thing they wanted to disappear ended up being discussed on 160 websites, an Early Day Motion, newspaper pieces and ITV news. There are a lot of people out there who want people like us to shut up. That’s their bad luck. See you in 2010.

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

27 Responses

  1. CoralBloom said,

    December 19, 2009 at 1:27 am

    Be proud of your considerable list of debunking Ben.

  2. Chris Parker said,

    December 19, 2009 at 1:38 am

    Great stuff. Keep up the good work.

  3. SDByers said,

    December 19, 2009 at 7:59 am

    Only found you this year, after reading some book. I look forward to a full year of nonsense in 2010.

  4. seasonticket said,

    December 19, 2009 at 8:18 am

    That is a really long list.

    If only there were a team of people who could read PR statements and scientific journals etc and then sort through the evidence critically. Then they could write up only the stuff that made sense into articles.

    They could put these articles in paper booklets every day and people could buy them.

  5. WilliamSatire said,

    December 19, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Don’t forget your pseudoscience detector!

  6. throg said,

    December 19, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    “If politicians want us to take them seriously on the evidence for global warming, they have to show they care about evidence everywhere.”

    I agree 100%. Consistency please.

    Not strictly OT, but perhaps stopping the third runway at Heathrow would be a good place to start.

  7. Sili said,

    December 19, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    And a merry Christmas to you, too.

  8. jameskildare said,

    December 19, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    The backache is a pain or stiffness of the back. Pain in the inferior or average part is commonest to feel the back. In article findrxonline indicated The backaches are more common during the adolescence, but also the people of legal age suffer and who appear and disappear during periods of time.
    The backaches can be caused by a pull in some of the 200 muscles of the back that allow us to maintain to us raised. The pull takes place when raising very heavy objects, when raising something from an uncomfortable position or when doing too much effort with muscles of the back. Most of the backaches the twist of a ligament or muscle can be caused by tension or.
    The backache can be associated with:
    • Stiffness, creeps, loss of mobility in an arm or a leg
    • Pain Chest or difficulty to breathe
    • Increase of the intensity of the pain, although this with medicines
    • Difficulty to walk or to maintain the balance.

  9. Bishop Gillian Wakefield said,

    December 19, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Well done. Merry Christmas – although the scientific evidence for that too is sketchy, to say the least.

    OT: Do runways cause global warming?

  10. stanley said,

    December 19, 2009 at 9:02 pm


    This is just such a lovely, lovely site isn’t it ?

    Thank you, Ben and everyone.

    This place, like a warm bath with candles, makes me feel all tingly and loved.

    Who is going to organise a Nerd Pride equivalent gig ?



  11. milli said,

    December 20, 2009 at 12:44 am

    thanks for the “thanks”. you provide an outlet for the scientific rage against the machine. I do believe you understand.

  12. Hanny said,

    December 20, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Yes, please do keep up the good work. See you in 2010! Best wishes.

  13. MrNick said,

    December 20, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Merry Christmas Ben. Keep up the good work.

    Best wishes.


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  15. njd said,

    December 21, 2009 at 9:58 am

    You’ve missed a trick there, Ben.

    There’s enough material each year for a Bad Science annual.

  16. tomrees said,

    December 21, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    About the “Industry funded studies, it turns out, are massively more likely to get into the bigger, more respected academic journals”. You reckon there is “no explanation for it.” I reckon there is.

    The causality is probably reverse. You’re defining “bigger, respected” by the crude measure “impact factor”. This is not a measure of size, or of respect, but of how often papers are cited.

    Industry-sponsored trials will get cited more often because the industry in question will cite them. Hence, the journals in which these studies are published will have a higher impact factor.

    There are a number of journals out there which are neither big, nor respected, but which have a high impact factor for this very reason.

    It would be simple to test it. Write a paper and submit it for peer review. Against one, put that it was industry funded and has industry authors. See which gets the harshest, more sceptical peer-review. I’m pretty sure I know which one would get put through the mill. What do you think?

  17. NeilHoskins said,

    December 22, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Whilst the scientific basis for the existence of a deity, who lived as a man in the Middle East about 2000 years ago, is flaky to say the least, the psychological benefits of some kind of midwinter festival should surely be fairly easy to demonstrate. So have a good ‘un.

  18. richardelguru said,

    December 22, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    So let’s all be historically sensitive and cry “Io, Saturnalia!”

  19. foofdawg said,

    December 23, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Thanks for a great blog this past year! We’re all looking forward to more of the same from you (but hopefully not as much woo) next year!

    Merry and Happy!

  20. TheLady said,

    December 24, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    Ben, you’re officially my Hero of 2009, and your renomination for the 2010 award is pretty much guaranteed. Keep doing what you’re doing, and keep being awesome doing it.

  21. lukeg said,

    December 27, 2009 at 2:36 am

    +1 what TheLady said.

    I must say it is profoundly alienating and upsetting to be surrounded by people who have “denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought” and, moreover, go so far as to claim that those very same developments are somehow without value and beauty.

    I cannot overestimate how reassuring this site, and the network of which it is a part, really is.

    Thank you so much.

  22. Sarah Hague said,

    December 29, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Ben, your blog is a beacon of sanity in an increasingly nutty, dishonourable and shockingly ignorant (media) world.

    Thank you for your dogged refusal to accept the crap.

    Happy New Year.

  23. labpharmacist said,

    December 29, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    A cracking year. Bought the book, evangelised about the book, ditto for the Blog. My concern now is that your (deservedly) stellar rise in the media will distract you from “sticking to the knitting”!

    I hugely look forward to opening up google reader in the morning and seeing that Bad Science has ‘gone black’!


    Have a great New Year Ben – we scientists need people like you. Now if only we could get Claire Fox to firstly listen, and then understand what you are going on about!

    the LabPharmacist

  24. Davros said,

    December 31, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Ben, as a new subscriber to the site, but a devoted reader of your Guardian column, I concur with all this praise being heaped on you. Your book is magnificent, and joins my list of indispensible reading for people who are interested in how the world really works, along with Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos and The God Delusion by RD (and pretty much everything else he’s written). Keep up the great work!


  25. Mags said,

    January 1, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    I am a new subscriber, but already enjoy your blog and column in the Guardian. My sons bought me your book for Christmas, which I think is amazing as they didn’t know about the afore mentioned – they just know I like to know about odd things and how things work! Brilliant book!

  26. Dr Spouse said,

    January 7, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    I only started reading in 2009, too, but look forward to more.

    I’m wondering if you’ve seen the latest “research” wasting our money – the YouGov survey reporting one in 6 children had difficulty learning to talk.

    Anyway, in a burst of self-promotion, which you may feel free to delete, I’d like to put a link to my take on it here:

  27. Rhoe said,

    January 15, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    I was knocked over by how brilliant and thoughtful this site and the column is. It’s completely changed how I evaluate the media, how my friends evaluate the media, and what we can expect if our own research projects were ever given attention.

    Really quite great, your are, Mr Goldacre.