Troubled water

February 10th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, water | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday February 10, 2005
The Guardian

· You’ll be pleased to hear that I’m still alive. Unless you’re from Penta Water. I was feeling terribly afraid after its text messages saying things like, “Practice [sic] keeping one eye open.” But then you sleuths rallied round.

· Everyone and their dog emailed in about Penta’s tussle with James Randi, stage magician and debunker of nonsense. He has $1m on offer for anyone who can demonstrate under controlled conditions that something vaguely spooky is happening – the spookiest thing is that it has remained unclaimed for years. Penta’s ambitious claim that seeds germinate in half the time in Penta Water, compared with normal water, seems like a pretty easy experiment, suggests Randi. Perhaps someone could finally take that $1m off his hands. Penta triumphantly announces it will try for the prize (www.randi.org/jr/08-24-01.html) and Randi suggests independently verifying the experiment. Penta wants to use some weird “Bio Impedance Analyser” to test how hydrated humans get on their water, instead. No problem, says Randi, gamely, use anything you like, let’s say you just have to identify correctly which type of water, Penta or non-Penta, was drunk by 37 out of the 50 subjects. But then, as if by magic, in a puff of suggestions that it might sue, Penta disappears, saying it doesn’t have the resources to nominate one trusted person to watch an experiment it is so confident will net it $1m. It doesn’t threaten him with violence. Maybe Penta was worried that Randi might have magical powers, too.

· But Bad Science sleuth of the week goes to Ray Girvan of ace debunking blog Apothecary’s Drawer, because he found out that Penta UK is run by Debbie Flint, “the original queen of shopping telly” and author of Freedom Eating: “This natural weight loss method has systematically helped thousands of people to break free from Food Prison.” I think we can imagine what kind of weight loss system “freedom eating” is. “There are three accompanying CDs with a retail value of over £36. CD Three is Audio Chocolate by LJ Rich, music to help you lose weight by!!” Brilliant. And in June 2000 in the News of the World: “TV shopping channel beauty Debbie Flint became the target of sick phone pests – after her number was listed in the Mensa directory of Britain’s brainiest people.” Mensa? “When I started getting these unpleasant calls out of the blue I couldn’t for the life of me work out why I was being picked on,” said Debbie. Neither can I.

Not by a long chalk

February 3rd, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, hate mail, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday February 3, 2005
The Guardian

· Sometimes people ask: what are your qualifications, to decide what is and isn’t bad science? The answer is that it doesn’t take much. Take the new television advert for cleaning product Cillit Bang: “Limescale is simply calcium that sticks, and if solid calcium dissolves this fast [lump of solid calclium starts fizzing], imagine how Cillit Bang works on taps and sinks.” Limescale is not calcium that sticks. Limescale is calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is a chalky substance rather a lot like, let’s say … chalk. You may have noticed the white cliffs of Dover not fizzing. Whereas calcium is a shiny silver metallic substance that is shiny, silver, and a metal, unlike limescale and chalk. When you throw a lump of calcium into water, like most people did aged 15, it fizzes and dissolves. And all those of you who thought calcium was white and opaque like teeth and bones and milk: isn’t it great to peer behind the curtain?

· Of course, some people don’t appreciate critical appraisal of their ideas. There isn’t enough room in the paper for me to pour sufficient bile on the ludicrous claims of Penta water, so I wasn’t going to bother, but now I’m strangely motivated. After last week’s piece about their failure to provide compelling evidence for bizarre claims about clustered water (uncritically written up in half a dozen national publications) I started receiving nasty, menacing text messages from them. Imagine this buzzing into your pocket: “Goldmember I do hope you are a better physician than you are a journalist when we publish you will of course be informed out of the decency/courtesy you didn’t show to us! Sleep well tonight and think about how and why you tried to fuck us over and practice [sic] keeping one eye open.” Needless to say, I’ve gone to the police. When I say I don’t like being threatened, I don’t say that to sound tough. I mean, it’s not very nice being threatened. In fact, they sent it twice, just so that I could be in no doubt. Then suddenly I started getting calls from PR guru Max Clifford to apologise for a “hotheaded” Penta staff member.

· Now, how often do you reckon a loser science journalist gets a call from Max Clifford PR? Weirdly, I last got one about six months ago, when we were looking into someone you may remember. She was called Dr Gillian McKeith PhD. What could she have in common with Penta water? They have each been the subject of more than five Bad Science columns. But, hang on, Penta’s only been in two. So far, that is.

Testing the water

January 27th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, references, water | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 27, 2005
The Guardian

Promoting the public misunderstanding of science this week we have Waitrose Food Illustrated, talking about Penta bottled water: “It’s ‘ultra-purified, restructured micro-water’ that offers ‘optimal cellular hydration’.” Sounds expensive. I wonder how it works. “By disrupting the naturally occurring molecule clusters in water with high-energy sound waves, they are able to pass more easily through the body’s cell membranes, quenching the thirst better.” Apparently it offers significant health benefits.

So I try to find out how and whether it works. Just watch as I waste a whole morning. First I go to Penta’s website. It’s dripping with scientific terminology and links to research, which end at best with a couple of very tenuous papers published in obscure Russian journals. Here’s a sample. “There are many types of bioactive molecular structures, including clustered water that scientists are continually researching, for instance at Cambridge.” Follow the link and you find a serious page about physics from a scientist and the disclaimer: “LINKS FROM ANY COMMERCIAL ORGANISATIONS TO THIS SITE ARE ENTIRELY UNAUTHORISED AND UNWELCOME. THE MAINTAINERS OF THIS SITE HAVE NO CONNECTIONS WITH ANY SUCH COMPANIES OR THEIR PRODUCTS.” I phone him. He roars with laughter, but isn’t in the mood to be quoted on something that has nothing to do with him. And rightly so. I get on to Penta. Got any peer-reviewed data, I ask? Apparently not yet. All the stuff on performance isn’t out yet, they’re keeping their heads down while they do the research. While they’ve been keeping their heads down, the Penta website quotes Metro as saying “hydrates at the intercellular level and has many recorded health benefits”, Men’s Health said it is “proven to hydrate more quickly” and the Daily Mirror said it will “increase the body’s cell survival by over 200%,” meaning I will die sometime after the year 2200. “The claims aren’t as far-fetched as they sound,” says the Evening Standard. I can’t wait to see the coverage they get when they go public with this.

But they do have a published paper, I’m told, on liposomes in vitro with aquaporins in an artificial membrane, “or something”, that shows the water is absorbed faster. They’ll email me the reference. Instead I get a call from the MD, who gets very upset that I am trying to catch her out on the science and asks that I don’t quote her. So I didn’t even get a confirmation that the paper exists. The morning is over, and confusion reigns supreme.

The Bad Science awards

December 9th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, channel 4 | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday December 9, 2004
The Guardian

· We thought it was time for a party, so those of you who like a good bunfight are cordially invited to join us for childishness and chaos at the 2004 Bad Science awards next Monday, December 13, starting at 8pm in the Asylum, 28 Rathbone Place, London W1. All you have to do in order to be invited is to send us your nomination for Bad Science of the year in absolutely any category you can think of, on the usual email address. Current categories include Bad Science product of the Year; Bad Science journal of the year (my money’s on the Daily Mail but it could be a close thing); and Channel 4 Scottish nutritionist PhD of the year.

· TV’s Vivienne Parry, star of Tomorrow’s World (and Life), is our celebrity guest, which excites me more than you could ever possibly understand, and prizewinners will be invited so you may even get to meet some of your nutritionist heroes, although frankly I doubt it. The venue can hold about a hundred, although we’d be astonished if more than 10 of you showed up, and even if you don’t want to come, you’ll be doing us a favour by nominating something, because then we won’t have to think about it too hard.

· Even more excitingly, also joining us will be National Grid, who will perform the kind of live science show you always deserved, featuring big sparks and rhythmic, musical manipulations to the 50Hz oscillation of the National Grid through some large bass speakers, accompanied by an antique static electricity generator, an induction coil, Crookes tubes, and Victorian electromedical violet ray devices.

· The vibrations at their performance in Tokyo brought down parts of the ceiling, but we made friends when they delivered a well-reasoned Bad Science rant about how flaky most art-meets-science projects are, and continued: “Even National Grid is sometimes misinterpreted as a kind of avant-garde protest about the negative health effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields. It is, however, conceived from the view that the overwhelming health effect of electrification is to bring light, heat and creative energy into the homes of millions of people (with the obvious ramifications for expectancy and quality of life). When the grid was nationalised in 1926 (by, ironically, Tory PM Stanley Baldwin) the act was described as ‘the most socialist piece of legislation ever known’.” Clearly such heroes of Bad Science deserve a wider audience. Don’t forget the nominations.

Vitamins advertised

November 25th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, nutritionists, weight loss | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 25, 2004
The Guardian

· Come with me as we pull back the veils, and examine the bizarre world of the nutrient marketing industry: I give you Nutraingredients, one of the many trade publications that feed the vitamin headlines. They enthuse about the developing trend among confectionery manufacturers to fortify their products with vitamins and minerals: nice. They eagerly explain how Unilever-owned Solero leapt on the noble campaign to get us to eat five pieces of fruit and veg a day, by advertising itself as the “ice cream to help you reach five a day”. Decadent westerners, open your ears and not your mouths: ice cream is not good for you in the same way that fruit and vegetables are.

· They also suggest that a rather small (albeit satisfactory) trial of vitamin E supplements in diabetics can be deployed in campaigns to negate the impact of that very large well-publicised meta-analysis of 14 separate placebo trials which damaged their industry by finding that vitamin E supplements can actually increase your risk of death: which is a problem notably not associated with a proper balanced diet. Reader Roger Daniels certainly knows his onions. “Most of us get our fat-soluble vitamin E through a balanced diet containing such things as nuts, vegetable oils or oily fish,” he explains, before revealing, with a flourish: Andrex with Aloe Vera and Vitamin E.

· It’s not clear to me exactly what proportion, if any, of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E I’m expected to absorb from my anal verge: certainly the French are in favour of the rectal administration of drugs, partly on grounds of taste – feel the irony – and partly because the veins that take blood away from the rectum can go straight into the bloodstream without passing through the liver, and so an entire phase of first-pass metabolism may be avoided. Look, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be educational, just because we’re talking about my sphincter; we’re all grownups, and we’re perfectly capable of talking openly about our bottoms without deploying puppies. I’m equally willing to entertain the hypothesis that the vitamin E is there for cosmetic reasons, intended perhaps to reduce sphincteric wrinkling. After all, you can also find vitamin E in Body Shop Tinted Moisturiser, and just like their blurb says, “as an antioxidant, it can help protect the skin from the harmful effects of pollution and extreme weather”. Which could be very useful in the adverse meteorological conditions of my cleft.

Brain sensitising

October 28th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, letters, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, placebo, references | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 28, 2004
The Guardian

· Generally, I don’t go for the little guys. But when the seventh copy of the Brain Respiration leaflet arrived in the Bad Science mailbag, I knew it was a serious moneyspinner: a multimillion dollar operation, in fact, with four centres in the UK, and headed by spiritual leader Dr Ilchi Lee, who runs international conferences, attended, he claims, by Al Gore. I don’t know if his doctorate is in neurosciences but he’s certainly made some breakthroughs with his “brain sensitising, brain versatilising, brain cleansing, brain re-wiring, and brain mastering”. Especially since it can “refresh the brain’s energy and help it create new brain cells for stronger brain function”, which is amazing given the conventional wisdom that you don’t make any new brain cells after you’re born. So you might want to protect the few you have left from brain respiration, especially since “this process goes beyond the anatomical layer of the neo-cortex … into the realm of the brain stem (where innate universal awareness is present)… the creativity of the neo-cortex is fully realised through an infinite current of energy”. No way is Dr Ilchi Lee putting an infinite current of energy through my neurons, but he can send me some of those cool brain-shaped gold vibrators off his website for only $90. They’re top of my Christmas list.

· So is there any peer-reviewed journal evidence to back up Brain Respiration? Yes! It’s from the Korea Institute of Brain Sciences (proprietor Dr Ilchi Lee), and it’s published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine. It measured the EEG of children meditating (in the special brain respiration way), and found that meditating kids had EEG findings characteristic of meditation, when compared with a bunch of kids just sitting “relaxing” with some electrodes on their heads, presumably baffled, certainly not meditating, and therefore producing EEG recordings characteristic of kids sitting around in a room. Which goes to show the importance of choosing your control group carefully. There is another paper, which claims to show the effect of brain respiration on stress hormones, but it’s only published in the Korea Institute of Brain Sciences journal, which, little surprise, isn’t carried by my usual academic libraries.

· Just to clarify: meditation is good, Herbert Benson’s excellent papers on the Relaxation Response, the opposite of fight-or-flight, absolutely rule, and you miss out at your peril. But trademarked pseudoscientific nonsense meditation schools are bad, just like all the other backdoors to enlightenment.

Note:

People love to write in and point out that I don’t go after Bad Science in The Guardian, as if I can somehow go over there and force them to publish whatever I want, perhaps following a brief hostage siege. And to the colossal delight of at least 50 people who emailed, Sally Weale, the editor of the Guardian health pages, published the following article a few weeks later:

www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1367824,00.html

Under the headline “It Works!” they gush extensively about how fabulous and scientifically well proven Brain Respiration is, and these ringing endorsements from The Guardian now prominently adorn the advertising material for Brain Respiration. The article includes the memorably untrue line: ” a number of independent studies have also been conducted on BR and the results published in peer-reviewed science journals.”

This, as many of you pointed out, is a demonstrably false fact in a newspaper (rather than, say, a matter of opinion) and deserves a simple correction. I think it’s as weird as you do, I wrote a letter to the letters page, it was ignored. What can I say?

The not so posh Kettle Chips

October 21st, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, dangers, scare stories, weight loss | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 21, 2004
The Guardian

· Let me take you back two weeks, to the story of Kettle Chips. They are running a slightly improbable ad campaign, slogan “No Science, No Fiction, Just Real”, in which food science technology is the bad guy and high salt, high fat, low nutrient, mass produced junk food – mysteriously – is the natural wholesome maverick alternative. Why attack science? I had to understand, so I rang their head office. Apparently we all misunderstand the brand. “This started when we found that people just think we make high salt, high fat, posh crisps.” Apparently they don’t use flavour enhancers (except salt and fat) and some bloke stirs the big vat with a rake instead of a machine. They must have pretty good PR training, because by the time he got on to not targeting children in their adverts, even I felt sorry for them.

· But I have in my hand, courtesy of vigilant reader Dr James Lloyd, a piece of paper. It’s from the Food and Drugs Administration in the US, and it’s an exploratory study of the amount of acrylamide in various foodstuffs. Acrylamide is used to make polyacrylamide, which is used in cosmetics, packaging materials, plastics, and grouting agents. Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke. Stop me if you’ve had enough of this nasty old “science” stuff. Acrylamide also causes cancer in animals (at high doses) and has been shown to cause nerve damage in people exposed to high levels at work. It can be formed by certain ways of cooking food. Like really hot fat and carbohydrates mixed together. Acrylamide, you understand, has only so far been proven to be dangerous at much higher levels than you find in most food. I’m not in the business of starting health scares.

· But guess what? Kettle Chips Lightly Salted Natural Gourmet Potato Chips contain acrylamide at 1,265 parts per billion. They’re in the top 1% for acrylamide content in this FDA exploratory study of over 700 foodstuffs. Kettle Chips say acrylamide content fluctuates over a season. This compares with acrylamide figures given for, say, chips from McDonald’s at only 155ppbn, Burger King 197ppbn, and KFC only 117ppbn. Although don’t go getting all excited about the low figure for acrylamide in KFC: remember, unlike my dead cat, I’m not a “clinical nutritionist” with a phoney qualification, so we don’t go around extrapolating from isolated laboratory findings into self-indulgent nonsensical lifestyle advice. Oh no. Living on junk food is still bad for you. And eat your greens – just like your mother told you.

Who’s the bad guy?

October 7th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, dangers, scare stories, weight loss | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 7, 2004
The Guardian

· What is science? A set of techniques, perhaps, for approaching a problem, or examining and describing the world. It informs, but is different from, technology, which in turn lets us do things like fly disaster rescue missions, phone our parents or manufacture processed junk food, each according to personal taste and preference. Or, if you’re a gullible neo-luddite new age moron, science is the universal bad guy. Like in the new Kettle Chips four-page pullout advert. Strapline: “No Science. No Fiction. Real.”

· Nice. “Our potatoes … ” they say, “one season they’re planted, it rains a bit, then the next season we dig a few up to check they’re ready before harvesting them. Not much science to that.” From what I remember, I’d say the completely amazing story of how a little round potato grows, with water and carbon dioxide and sunlight, into a bushy four-foot green plant with loads more potatoes under the ground, is pretty much our core constituency. And the astonishing unlikeliness of how it all works still blows my mind 15 years after Mr Hollander taught me back in the lower fourth about photosynthesis, chemotaxis, and that amazing stuff where the roots know how to grow down instead of up even in the dark.

· Back to the advert: “Salt and vinegar? No thanks. Sea salt and balsamic vinegar for us_ No Science.” No, heaven forbid. Salt is a nasty chemical that gives you hypertension and heart attacks. Natural sea salt is a different kettle of chips altogether. Now, stop me if I’ve lost what little perspective I once had, but to recap: these are crisps, and this is a junk food company, advertising its junk food which it makes in a big factory somewhere. It’s promoting rubbish food that will make you fat and ugly, and now it’s telling me that “science” is the bad guy that I’m supposed to be afraid of.

· Well shake my pot belly and shower me with emboli, why would a junk food company want to turn me against science? After all, science gave it cheaper ways to make junk food, and imaging advances help us see the damage its food does to our arteries, and epidemiology helps us to notice that its food lowers our life expectancy, and materials research helps surgeons to replace our blocked, rotting arteries so that we can keep on stuffing our faces with its posh crisps. Who’s the bad guy there, fat boy?

Sitting pretty

September 9th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, cosmetics | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 9, 2004
The Guardian

· I prostrate myself before you and admit defeat. I’ve been writing this column for nearly two years, and I still haven’t managed to stiff a single multinational cosmetics firm: they’re just too good at constructing legally defensible pseudoscience. I’m picturing huge laboratories and rows of scientists writing incomprehensible but legally sound babble onto their clipboards.

· Cosmetics companies take laboratory data – stuff at a molecular level, the behaviour of cells in a glass dish – and then pretend it’s the same as the ultimate issue of whether something makes you look nice. This amino acid, they say, is crucial for collagen formation. Perfectly true, along with 19 others. No evidence to say that anyone is deficient in it, and, crucially, no explicit claim from the company that rubbing that actual amino acid on your face is what is going to make you look better. That link is made only in the customer’s mind: because the claim that the cream makes you look good is an entirely separate one, made for the cream as a whole, and it’s true, because all creams will hydrate your skin and make you look good. Vaseline, as it happens, also does it rather well, but leaves a greasy sheen. And most cosmetics research, since you ask, comes down to conserving the moisturising properties of Vaseline, but avoiding the greasiness. Diprobase, at less than £10 for a half-litre tub, represents a pretty good stab at solving this problem.

· What about the other magic ingredients? One thing kind of works: cooked and broken-up protein (hydrolysed X-microprotein nutricomplexes, or whatever they’re calling them this month). These are long soggy chains of amino acids, which contract when they dry, and so temporarily contract your wrinkles. That’s temporarily. And all the expensive creams have got that in them anyway. A couple of other things kind of work. Vitamin C, and alpha-hydroxy acids affect skin significantly, although only at such high concentrations that they also cause irritation, stinging, burning and redness: so now they have to be watered down, to pretty useless dilutions. But companies can still name them on the label, and wallow in the glory of their efficacy at higher potencies, because by law you don’t have to give the doses of your ingredients, only their ranked order.

· Now, I’m begging you, find me one that makes a properly fraudulent pseudoscientific claim I can write about without getting sued, and I’ll give you a free tub of Diprobase.

Rusty results

September 2nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, detox, very basic science, water | 14 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 2, 2004
The Guardian

· Time for a Johnny Ball kitchen science experiment, I think. I could have told you from the start that “Aqua Detox” was a scam, and a popular one at that. Why? Because it is claimed to extract “toxins” from your body through the “2,000 pores in your feet” discovered by those ancient Chinese scientists. And because it’s so charmingly theatrical: you put your feet in a water bath, containing “natural organic salts”, with an electrical current that “resonates” with your “bio-energetic field” passing across it, and the water goes first tea-coloured, and then properly brown, with a sludge on top. You think I’m making this up, but it’s been in the Daily Telegraph, and innumerable other places. So it must be true. And this brown, the Aqua Detox people proudly tell you, is from the toxins coming out of your body.

· Thinking back to GCSE chemistry, it seemed likely to me that it was rust rather than toxins, since they have, after all, got a pair of metal electrodes in a salt water bath with a current passing across them. And so we set up, on a kitchen table, a bowl containing salt and water, with two metal nails attached to a car battery. And what do you know: our water goes brown too, with a nice sludge on top. Could this be the same brown as the Aqua Detox water?

· Bravely I sent along my friend Dr Mark Atkins to have himself Aqua Detoxed. He took water samples from the bowl, which we sent off to the Medical Toxicology Unit at New Cross, south-east London. You can only imagine our excitement, especially as they charged us £200 for the analysis. And so – triumphant music – the water taken out before they switched their Aqua Detox machine on contained only 0.54mg per litre of iron (probably from the metal spoon); but afterwards it contained … 23.6mg/l. Our water, from our kitchen table setup, contained 97mg/l (and it was a bit browner).

· But did it extract toxins? “Toxin” is classic pseudoscience terminology. Essentially, the Aqua Detox people are offering dialysis, through your feet. Urea and creatinine are probably the smallest molecules – call them “toxins” if you like – that your body gets rid of, in places like urine and sweat: if “toxins” were going to come out, anywhere, you’d expect those to come out, too. There was no urea or creatinine in the water before the Aqua Detox, and there was none in the water afterwards. Which means, I believe, that we win.