Antibodies need some pollen, sometimes

March 18th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, oxygen, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, very basic science | 3 Comments »

Antibodies need some pollen, sometimes

Ben Goldacre
Thursday March 18, 2004
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· The hits just keep on coming. Our noble bad science spotter Carl Brancher sends important news of PO2 Contour Cream from Laboratoires Herzog: it’s a “patented stabilisation of oxygen within a cream” that “puts oxygen back into the skin, reoxygenates skin cells, encourages natural rejuvenation”. It sounds like bollocks; but it smells like peroxide. Especially since Laboratoires Herzog point out, in the small print, that you will want to keep the stuff off your eyebrows. Now, I’m not sure that this is going to put any useful oxygen in my skin, because I’ve got a perfectly adequate circulatory system to handle that; but more importantly, I’m not sure that peroxide is quite what I’m looking for on my face. For £25.

· You may remember Dr Ali, “Britain’s top integrated health expert” from the Sunday Express, who was recently suggesting that the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in your brain is circulated by the pulsation of your (er, rigid) skull. This week he’s telling us that “the body produces antibodies against bacteria and other living organisms that can multiply. But pollens and dust particles are inert (non-living), so the body tries to flush them out by sneezing, coughing, and producing mucous.” Guess those antibody tests where they inject you with pollen are a waste of time then.

· Anyone worried about Dr Ali’s poor understanding of medicine need not worry. Trained in Delhi and Moscow, and now based just off Harley Street in London, he has, his website informs us, “chosen not to apply for registration with the British General Medical Council as the treatment which he personally provides uses massage, diet, yoga and natural supplements and oils which do not need prescription”. Cynics might suggest that his decision not to apply for registration has got more to do with the fact that the General Medical Council regulations forbid the endorsement of lucrative commercial products. Like “Dr Ali’s special recipe Ayurvedic Joint Oil” (£8.50).

· Meanwhile, taking a chance on watching the national lottery draw on television, a reader, Rob Johnson, was delighted to see the programme quiz pose the following question in the science category: “What sign of the zodiac is represented by a fish?” As Mystic Meg might say, “Moron is rising in Aquarius …”

Chocolate love

January 8th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, celebs, chocolate, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, weight loss | 12 Comments »

Chocolate love

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 8, 2004
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· With painful inevitability, that old chestnut about chocolate’s health-giving properties popped up on the health and women’s pages of almost every newspaper, as is traditional at Christmas. The Daily Express eagerly pointed out that it’s “a good source” of flavanols, antioxidants, magnesium, zinc and iron. And in the Telegraph: “Chocolate is good for you,” says Chloe Doutre-Roussel, chocolate buyer at Fortnum & Mason. “It has minerals such as fluoride for the teeth and potassium, like bananas.” Doutre-Roussel is, we are told, “an ultra-slim Frenchwoman… Although she eats 1lb of chocolate a day, she weighs a mere 7st 12lb.” Mars, which has been lavishing money on research into the benefits of chocolate for 10 years now, started this tradition five years ago, employing PR consultancy Grayling Healthcare to send out press releases such as “Media Alert: News for Chocolate Lovers this Christmas”.

So, whatever the truth is about minerals, the manufacturers of Galaxy and Milky Way must have been disappointed by recent research showing that what few antioxidants there are in cocoa beans are hardly absorbed from milk chocolate at all. Manufacturers first flaunted chocolate’s healthiness during food shortages after the first world war, and only stopped when we started measuring and labelling the contents. Just as that process got going, the 1930 Food and Drug Review said: “The magic words ‘health giving’ are today the most overworked and loosely applied in the advertising lexicon.” – 74 years ago.

· The Mail on Sunday’s “integrated health expert” Dr Ali was busy this week writing about headaches. “The skull,” he claims, “contracts and expands a dozen times or so each minute to push the [cerebrospinal] fluid round, but tight neck muscles and misaligned skull bones can disrupt this process.” You don’t need to be a doctor like Ali – whose clients include Prince Charles and Geri Halliwell – to know that the skull is a rigid box of bone and, since you asked, the fluid is kept moving by the waving movements of cilia lining the ventricles, respiratory and arterial pulsations, postural changes and the pressure gradient between the places where it’s made and reabsorbed. Ali, despite qualifying in Delhi and Moscow, is not registered with the General Medical Council because, his website informs us, “the treatment which he personally provides uses massage, diet, yoga and natural supplements and oils which do not need prescription”. Why not rob a bank and visit him anyway, at his “Integrated Health Centre”, just off Harley Street.

Polystyrene and calm kids

November 6th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, mail, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Polystyrene and calm kids

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 6, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· It’s been a great week for Bad Science. I was delighted to see designer Paul Cocksedge explaining in Elle magazine how he had made a lampshade out of polystyrene cups. “When I heat them, they bond together, all the air disappears from them, and they shrink to a quarter of their size, becoming hard like porcelain. I call the design ‘Styrene’, because all the ‘poly’ part, the air, has disappeared,” he confides.

· But the prize goes to nutritionist Jane Clarke of the Mail on Sunday. This week she was cooking up her “Recipe for Calm Kids”. After a diatribe against Ritalin (“more potent than cocaine”) she went on to claim that, in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), there is “research showing that dietary adjustments are equally effective alternatives without the side effects”, before recommending some expensive supplements.

· This is not true. It is also unkind. Nobody likes the idea of giving tablets to children, and there may be promising speculative research on omega-3 fatty acids and mental health, but if the data’s not there, the data’s not there …

· In fact, there seems to be precisely one study comparing Ritalin and dietary supplements, and it’s a study in how not to do research. It involved just 20 kids. The parents got to chose whether they wanted Ritalin or dietary supplements so, farcically, it wasn’t randomised; there was no placebo group, and both groups got better, though both got educated about dealing with ADHD so both would have got better anyway, and there was no attempt to compare outcomes between the groups, despite that being the whole point of the paper. It was published in the journal Alternative Medicine Review, and you may want to check out one of the authors.

· Let’s see what the New York state department of health’s office of professional medical conduct has to say about Dr Charles Gant MD, last author on the paper. Luckily, they have a searchable database of registered physicians. Oh look, he was caught ordering tests from an unlicensed laboratory that showed nutrient deficiencies in his patients, which he then claimed were causing their illnesses, which he would then treat with prescriptions of expensive dietary supplements. That is, expensive dietary supplements from his own company. Gant was suspended for six months for fraud. You can read the full judgment at tinyurl.

Quack Tales

May 29th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, nutritionists, oxygen, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications | 10 Comments »

Quack tales

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 29, 2003
The Guardian

Talk about bad science

I am delighted to be able to present you with the head of an American doctor, who has been struck off after the complementary therapies he was peddling turned out to be not just ineffective but downright dangerous.

Dr James E Johnson MD – because Americans always manage to make doctors sound like soap stars – has had his licence revoked after a string of increasingly bizarre and dangerous attempts to cure what he believed was a yeast infection. He started with garlic but his patient was in a hurry and so he decided to speed things along by administering hydrogen peroxide, a popular pseudoscientific therapy.

On this occasion the hydrogen peroxide was given intravenously, through a peripherally-inserted central catheter into a vein in her arm, travelled all the way up through her armpit and on into her chest where it sat snugly next to her heart. After a few “treatments” her arm became red and painful, and she became dizzy with a headache. Johnson diagnosed a “mini-stroke” and, like a good complementary therapist, initiated intramusucular vitamin C injections. The injection site for these became red and inflamed but instead of using antibiotics which, he told his patient, were “incompatible” with hydgrogen peroxide, he prescribed charcoal poultice compresses. With painful inevitability, things deteriorated further.

By the time his credulous patient managed to dredge up the reserves of self confidence necessary to rethink her values and approach a conventional doctor, an ultrasound scan revealed that she had developed an abscess the size of a baseball, which was surgically removed in hospital, after which she mercifully recovered.

For decades, optimistic alternative therapists have been claiming that hydrogen peroxide therapy can treat cancer and various infections (latterly including Aids), as well as improving tissue oxygenation: a quick hunt around the alternative therapy section of any bookshop, or the internet, will produce entertaining examples. The fundamental misunderstandings seem to be, as far as it is possible to untangle these things, that H2O2 is water with a bit of extra oxygen, that this can be used by cells as normal oxygen, or as some form of special oxygen inhibit enzymes in tumour cells, or produce “glyoxylide” which has alleged healing properties but has never been isolated. It can be jolly dangerous, and several pseudioscientists have been successfully disciplined for lying about it ever since Dr Koch, its inventor, was first censured by the FDA in 1942.