Publish or be damned

August 3rd, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent, mail, media, statistics | 5 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 4, 2005
The Guardian

· I have a very long memory. So often with “science by press release”, newspapers will cover a story, even though the scientific paper doesn’t exist, assuming it’s around the corner. In February 2004, the Daily Mail was saying that Read the rest of this entry »

Risk of infection

May 26th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, express, independent, mail, mirror, MMR, telegraph, times | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 26, 2005
The Guardian

· I’d like to open with a sanctimonious moment. I don’t expect anyone else in the world to follow suit, but from now on, if I refer to published academic research, I’ll be giving the full reference, at the foot of the column if there’s space, or at least on the web version. Why this is not standard media practice has always mystified me. “Science communicators” do read original papers and critically appraise them before writing about them, don’t they?

· Anyway, we’ll come back to testicles later. Meanwhile, there are two outbreaks of polio in Yemen and Indonesia. The strain of poliovirus originated – pay attention – in the Kano province in northern Nigeria. What, you may ask, has this got to do with your gonads – or indeed those of the man you love? Well, a couple of years ago Kano was the focal point of a Nigerian Muslim boycott of polio vaccination. Imams claimed that the vaccine was dangerous, poisoned, contaminated and part of a US plot to spread Aids or infertility in the Islamic world. Five Nigerian states boycotted it. Because, as any trendy MMR-dodging north London middle class humanities graduate couple with children would agree, just because vaccination has almost eradicated polio – a debilitating disease which as recently as 1988 was endemic in 125 countries – does not mean it is necessarily a good thing.

· This brings us back to testicles. Because, sadly, the natural world does not quite share my sense of retributive justice, nor does the paramyxovirus that causes mumps. If it were infecting only the innocent unvaccinated offspring of humanities graduates with no understanding of risk, I’d pretend to be sad on their behalf. But no. There were 8,104 cases of mumps confirmed in the UK last year, up from a combined total of 3,907 for all the previous five years, chart fans.

· But mumps cases last year were predominantly in young adults, because young adults as a herd have the lowest immunity. And one in five young men who get mumps can expect orchitis, a new joy for fans of infected and inflamed testicles. If your balls hurt and you’re infertile, you might wish to thank, for their peculiar interpretation and eulogising on the dangers of MMR: Andrew Wakefield, Nigella Lawson, Libby Purves, Suzanne Moore, Lynda Lee-Potter, The Daily Mail, Leo Blair’s tight-lipped parents, and, let’s be fair, every single national newspaper.

BMJ 2005 May 14;330: 1119-20

Straight jabs

January 13th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent, magnets, mail, MMR | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 13, 2005
The Guardian

People sometimes say to me, “I enjoy Bad Science, but often the jokes go right over my head, which makes me worry that I must be ignorant.” To which I always reply: “Good.” Over to reader Anne Pickard: “Unable to get a copy of our Saturday Guardian, my husband bought the Independent, which included a feature on ‘The 50 best spa treatments’. You may be interested to learn that in seventh place comes “Magnetic Massage”, where your torso “is shrouded in an infrared-heated blanket that warms up your kidneys to help speed up the detoxification process in your internal organs”. Brilliant. Is there anything else I can do to warm my kidneys up? “Do something unexpectedly kind for one person every day,” says the careers development section of www.telecomsjobsource.co.uk, “this tends to warm your kidneys.”

Meanwhile, it’s good to see some of you have been keeping an eye on the Daily Mail, particularly the story of a new “triple jab” as the paper called it. The vaccination they are talking about is the conjugate pneumococcal vaccine that the Joint Committee on Immunisation and Vaccination recommended at its last meeting. Most people had expected the Mail to get its knickers in a twist, but where did it pull the idea of a triple vaccine from? The pneumococcal vaccine currently licensed in the UK (given to children at high risk of complications from pneumococcal infection) is a 7-valent conjugate vaccine which protects against seven of the most common serotypes of pneumococcus. Shut up. Nobody complains about the Books section being too “Booky”. So anyway, it’s not a “triple” vaccine, that great Daily Mail bogeyman, because it only confers protection against one organism (Streptococcus pneumoniae), just like the Hib vaccine confers immunity to Haemophilius influenzae type B, and the conjugate Men C vaccine protects against Neisseria meningitidis.

Presumably, and this is the best explanation I can offer, the Mail journalist took the Department of Health’s suggestion that the vaccine would protect children against bacterial meningitis, pneumonia and septicaemia, and assumed this meant three separate diseases, like MMR protects against measles, mumps and rubella. But bacterial meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia are three – potentially fatal – outcomes of a pneumococcal infection. As our spotter says: “It’s a good job they hadn’t picked up on the 7-valent bit. They would have got even more excited about a septuple vaccine.”

Atomic tomatoes are not the only fruit

December 16th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in africa, alternative medicine, bad science, celebs, channel 4, channel five, cosmetics, dna, express, gillian mckeith, herbal remedies, independent, letters, mail, MMR, nutritionists, oxygen, penises, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, quantum physics, references, space, statistics, telegraph, times, very basic science, water | 9 Comments »

This article is a rough transcript of the most excellent Bad Science Awards 2004 that were held in the Asylum Club on Rathbone St W1, a tiny basement club with a fire safety license for 150. We were expecting 20 people but to general astonishment there were queues down the street, and an unruly crowd who were drunkenly, loudly, and at one point quite violently baying for Gillian McKeith’s blood. Also performing were the excellently frightening and dangerous Disinformation presents “National Grid”, performance terrorism with victorian electrical equipment and rubber gloves, featuring Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor and Guardian Far Out fame.

Thursday December 16, 2004
The Guardian

Ben Goldacre on the gongs nobody wants to win…

Andrew Wakefield prize for preposterous extrapolation from a single unconvincing piece of scientific data

With its place at the kernel of Bad Science reporting in the news media, this was bound to be a hotly contested category. Were there any Read the rest of this entry »

Number crunching

August 5th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, mail | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 5, 2004
The Guardian

· Strap me to a rocket and print my home address at the bottom of the column: I’m clearly far too meek to make any sensible comment on animal experiments. Although I have found great joy in being lectured, by social commentators, on the appropriateness of human and animal models for research. “MRI scanners can tell you more about what’s going on in a human’s brain than you find out by opening up a marmoset’s head,” says Tony Banks MP, championing the exclusive use of a newly invented brain imaging technique – developed and validated in experiments on animals, no less – with low spatial and temporal resolution, over all other forms of experimental neuroscience.

· Of course, it’s difficult to explain to some people why empirical observation is important; where instead of taking the experience of one person as gospel, you take lots of experiences, from lots of different perspectives, and count them all up together. You can pick up some handy tips on collecting observational data in the “Four essential exercises to boost your psychic powers,” the Daily Mail offered this week. “If you have experienced even one of the following you probably have psychic ability: you decide on impulse to change your route to work only to discover later that there was an accident or heavy traffic on your customary route; you suddenly think of someone you haven’t heard from in years and the next day receive an email or call from them … ” Yes, that’s happened to me! Although if a miracle is a one in a million coincidence, and things and thoughts happen at a rate of about one a second, then by the calculator in my Casio watch I’m disappointed to experience a miracle less than once every three weeks.

· Which just goes to show the importance of carefully collecting large sample groups to establish causal links where possible. “Is creosote a potential killer?” asks the Daily Mail, divining good from evil, and still sifting slowly through every category of inanimate object in the world, to decide if they are either a miraculous cure or a scandalous cause for cancer. It must be one or the other. The matter is settled on its letters pages. “Yes” says the headline over a letter from a woman who once saw one person develop a rash from it. “No” says a letter written by someone whose parents used to paint chicken runs, and both lived to 85. Nullius in verba, as they say in the Royal Society: “on the word of no one”. Keep doing the statistics.

Snot a problem

July 29th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, express, mail, nutritionists, oxygen, very basic science | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 29, 2004
The Guardian

· Mainstream science is, of course, not above reproach. We all know about the dangers of publication bias, where only positive findings get reported, and the negative ones get left in desk drawers; and, of course, sometimes cheeky souls quote papers selectively, to bolster their own agenda. Like the Daily Mail. This week it reports a trial, by the “Institute for Optimum Nutrition”, showing that bone mineral density is preserved in postmenopausal women taking soy milk, because “soy protein and its isoflavones – natural compounds that have a weak, oestrogen-like effect – are good for bones, but until now there has not been an investigation of long-term effects in humans”. It must be news because these gentle, natural isoflavones have, so they say, until now, been callously ignored by patriarchal medical science. Although only if you disregard a very similar but far larger trial, which found that soy supplements do not protect against postmenopausal changes. It was published several weeks previously in Jama, the most important and well read medical journal in America. I didn’t see the findings of that study reported in the newspapers.

· After our cream last week that kills “every known bacteria”, the Daily Express reports that Kleenex is launching an antiviral wipe that can “check the spread of colds and flu”, with chemicals on the middle layer of a three-ply tissue destroying “99.9% of the germs that lay millions low across the nation”. Only 99.9% this time? “This is an incredible breakthrough,” says Kleenex’s spokesman, Dr Winkler Weinberg. “But,” the Express warns, “some scientists fear it could weaken the immune system and trigger the growth of superbugs.” Yikes! That certainly makes it sound jolly potent. Which scientists were they, the ones who keep giving each other colds by sharing disposable tissues covered in snot? Since most of us prefer to catch our colds from the air droplets out of coughs and sneezes, I don’t think we need to be too worried about the Kleenex superbugs just yet.

· Finally, something fishy from the August edition of She magazine, via reader Joanna Franks: “Marketed as an energy booster, HealthAid’s Concentrated Air-Oxy (£9.99) is also effective against jet lag. The drops contain negatively charged oxygen particles that, when added to a glass of water and drunk, supply extra oxygen to the tissues and thus combat tiredness.” Only if you’ve got gills.

Blood’s a bad science magnet

May 27th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dna, magnets, mail | 3 Comments »

Blood’s a bad science magnet

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 27, 2004
The Guardian

Talk about bad science here

· No bad science this week: the world has changed. Only kidding. David Pack sends me a fabulous leaflet he picked up in a Cambridge library recently on Energy Interference Patterning of DNA. “If you find yourself in situations that cause irritated or defensive reactions…” That’s me. “Research confirms that emotions, feelings and belief systems alter DNA… the EIP technique unlocks the mystery of healing quickly and easily … access cellular DNA memory and create a new regenerated and rejuvenated DNA… remove old belief systems permanently.”

· Luckily there was a voice of sanity in the wilderness: Carole Caplin in the Mail on Sunday. “Adidas shoe designer Christian DiBendetto has come up with a computerised running shoe, complete with buttons, magnet and electric motor.” For £170. Sounds right up her street. But no. “Can you imagine anything worse? The foot contains important energy meridians that a magnet and electric motor could seriously interfere with. “Gosh. How dangerous is that, Carole? “DiBendetto says that a shoe that changes shape to suit a hard or soft surface was a fantasy until now. Soon, it will be a nightmare.”

· Meanwhile reader David Bradbury sends us in The Eye Zone Massager, another classic piece of pseudoscience from those folks at the Science Museum gift shop. “At the end of a stressful day, use this special mask for a few minutes. It massages the temples and eye area, reducing stress and energising muscles. Very refreshing, it helps prevent bags and dark rings. Gentle magnets also enhance circulation. Battery included.” No. Again, no. Gentle magnets do not enhance circulation. Blood is not magnetic: and why not try these fun demonstrations at home to prove it. Bleed yourself on to a dish and wave a magnet over it: observe your blood not moving. Hold a magnet over your skin, and watch it not go red. Put yourself in an MRI scanner with a massive magnetic field, and carefully note that you are not hovering, in a dramatic living demonstration of the non-magneticness of your blood. Get a job on a scrapyard, hang out under that big electromagnet they use to pick up the cars, and notice that you do not fly up into the sky, and do not smash your skull into lots of tiny pieces. Regardless of what the Science Museum’s merchandise tells you, kids, blood is not magnetic. Unless, of course, the shop is aware of this and an interactive demonstration of the more cynical commercial applications of science.

Blood’s a bad science magnet

May 27th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, dna, magnets, mail | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 27, 2004
The Guardian

· No bad science this week: the world has changed. Only kidding. David Pack sends me a fabulous leaflet he picked up in a Cambridge library recently on Energy Interference Patterning of DNA. “If you find yourself in situations that cause irritated or defensive reactions…” That’s me. “Research confirms that emotions, feelings and belief systems alter DNA… the EIP technique unlocks the mystery of healing quickly and easily … access cellular DNA memory and create a new regenerated and rejuvenated DNA… remove old belief systems permanently.”

· Luckily there was a voice of sanity in the wilderness: Carole Caplin in the Mail on Sunday. “Adidas shoe designer Christian DiBendetto has come up with a computerised running shoe, complete with buttons, magnet and electric motor.” For £170. Sounds right up her street. But no. “Can you imagine anything worse? The foot contains important energy meridians that a magnet and electric motor could seriously interfere with. “Gosh. How dangerous is that, Carole? “DiBendetto says that a shoe that changes shape to suit a hard or soft surface was a fantasy until now. Soon, it will be a nightmare.”

· Meanwhile reader David Bradbury sends us in The Eye Zone Massager, another classic piece of pseudoscience from those folks at the Science Museum gift shop. “At the end of a stressful day, use this special mask for a few minutes. It massages the temples and eye area, reducing stress and energising muscles. Very refreshing, it helps prevent bags and dark rings. Gentle magnets also enhance circulation. Battery included.” No. Again, no. Gentle magnets do not enhance circulation. Blood is not magnetic: and why not try these fun demonstrations at home to prove it. Bleed yourself on to a dish and wave a magnet over it: observe your blood not moving. Hold a magnet over your skin, and watch it not go red. Put yourself in an MRI scanner with a massive magnetic field, and carefully note that you are not hovering, in a dramatic living demonstration of the non-magneticness of your blood. Get a job on a scrapyard, hang out under that big electromagnet they use to pick up the cars, and notice that you do not fly up into the sky, and do not smash your skull into lots of tiny pieces. Regardless of what the Science Museum’s merchandise tells you, kids, blood is not magnetic. Unless, of course, the shop is aware of this and an interactive demonstration of the more cynical commercial applications of science.

Publish or perish

May 13th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, mail, MMR, references | 1 Comment »

Publish or perish

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 13, 2004
The Guardian

Talk about Bad science here

· If you visit the Royal Society – even women are allowed in, contrary to what you may have been told – you’ll see their motto proudly on display: “Nullius in verba” or on the word of no one. And what I like to imagine they’re referring to, in my geeky way, is the importance of publishing proper scientific papers, if you want to be trusted. This obviously comes as a surprise to most journalists and alternative therapists, so I’ll explain exactly why. Let’s say that you’ve decided to accept satan’s shilling and write for the Daily Mail. You want to write an article on MMR and how bad it is. Luckily, Dr Arthur Krigsman has been claiming for years now that he has found evidence linking MMR to autism and bowel disease, so you write about that. He may well have done so. But since he didn’t publish his findings, he can claim them until he’s blue in the face, because until we can see exactly what he did, we can’t see what flaws there may be in his methods. Maybe he didn’t select the subjects properly. Maybe he measured the wrong things. If he doesn’t write it up formally, we can never know.

· This is what scientists do: write papers, and pull them apart to make sure the findings are robust. We look for flaws in the experimental methods that may cause flaws in the results, that may cause flaws in the conclusions. Science is not about absolute facts from authority figures: you describe exactly what you did in the methods section, what your results were, and how wide the error margin was: then you describe your theory, contingently built on this fragile, contentious data. Without all that information, the findings and the figures are worthless.

Two weeks ago, you will remember, the biggest science story in the UK was Kevin Warwick’s study, showing that watching Richard and Judy improved IQ performance in 200 subjects. Four years ago the same result was reported, but with a study sample of 120 people, implying that this ridiculous finding was robust enough to be replicated. The study has never been properly published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, and Warwick says he doesn’t want to do so. But the study was misreported this time round: a press release incorrectly stated that there were 200 subjects, when in fact there was just one study, of 120. Which just goes to show that press releases on unpublished data are a rubbish basis for a report on a scientific experiment. If the experiment was properly published, and if journalists knew enough to trust only properly published data, stories like this would never run.

A surrogate outcome

February 19th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent, mail, nutritionists, references | 3 Comments »

Read and search all the Bad Science Columns from the Guardian and more here.

Ben Goldacre
Thursday February 19, 2004
The Guardian

Hold your breath and forgive me: this week things are a tiny bit more complicated than usual. According to the Daily Mail, cod liver oil is “nature’s super drug”. I don’t doubt that for a minute. Although I can’t help remembering that almost every time I read a story like that, and then go and check the original published journal article, it shows nothing of the sort.

But this time I can’t even do that: because the paper has not been published yet. All there is on this research is a press release from Cardiff University. “The findings from this study will be published in a medical journal later this year.” When? Where? Has it passed peer review? Has it in fact been accepted? Was the study any good? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. There’s no way of knowing.

What I can tell you is that there were only 31 people in the study, which really isn’t very many, but I can’t tell you how significant or meaningful the results were, on this small sample, because they don’t tell us the figures. What I can also tell you, for all Cardiff University’s press release hyperbole about this being unique human in vivo evidence, is that it wasn’t even about real people getting better, or about their pain levels, or range of movement, or how far they could walk. All the study seems to show was a small change in a laboratory measurement of an obscure enzyme, what scientists call a “surrogate outcome”. That’s a hell of a long way from deserving five major stories in national newspapers, and even further from what Michael McCarthy wrote in the Independent: “They’re not yet saying it can enable you to stop a bullet or leap tall buildings, but it’s not far short of that.”

GPs this week will, quite rightly, be inundated with patients asking for advice on cod liver oil. How can they give the right advice? And, in any case, it’s not just a question of being right; how can they give sensible advice to pensioners, who may be almost living on the breadline, about whether to spend what little money they have on these pills? To do that you need a proper paper, with all the data. Because science is about data, and papers, which scientists spend their careers finding flaws in; it isn’t about taking things on faith, or on the word of experts. That, all too painfully, is at the heart of the public’s misperception of science, and of bias in research, and that’s something to be fought, as the House of Lords report on science and the media recommended: by training scientists to deal with the press appropriately.

This article has been followed up on here.