Don’t dumb me down

September 8th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, bbc, cash-for-"stories", channel 4, channel five, chocolate, dangers, express, gillian mckeith, independent, letters, mail, media, mirror, MMR, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, references, scare stories, statistics, telegraph, times, very basic science, weight loss | 85 Comments »

We laughed, we cried, we learned about statistics … Ben Goldacre on why writing Bad Science has increased his suspicion of the media by, ooh, a lot of per cents

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 8, 2005
The Guardian

OK, here’s something weird. Every week in Bad Science we either victimise some barking pseudoscientific quack, or a big science story in a national newspaper. Now, tell me, why are these two groups even being mentioned in the same breath? Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong? Like a proper little Darwin, I’ve been Read the rest of this entry »

Risky Business

June 20th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in mirror, scare stories, statistics, telegraph, times | 20 Comments »

Risky business

Health-scare stories often arise because their authors simply don’t understand numbers

Ben Goldacre
Monday June 20, 2005
The Guardian

Competence always looks better from a distance, but I have a confession to make: I’m a doctor, and I just don’t understand most of the stories on health risks in the news. I don’t mean I can’t understand the fuss. I mean I literally can’t understand what 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

Milk intolerance

February 24th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, mirror, nutritionists | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday February 24, 2005
The Guardian

· Everybody’s debunking these days, even those heroes of extrapolation, the nutritionists. Take Angela Dowden, writing in the Mirror this week, under the heading: “Top nutritionist on the ‘functional fare’ fad.” The news archives are inevitably full of articles by someone called Angela Dowden lucratively promoting the functional food fad. But anyway, look, I’m not going to be mealy mouthed about this [coughs] I just wish she’d get her balls out and debunk with gusto. Here’s what she has to say about a magnificently bonkers product called Night Time semi-skimmed milk (89p for 750ml; 30p for a 250ml glass): “The theory: Naturally higher in melatonin ‘for a good night’s sleep’. Melatonin is a sleep-inducing hormone produced by the brain’s pineal gland and also contained in milk. Night Time has twice the level found in a normal pint. Does it work? Nice idea but there has been no research on the milk to show it actually works … 3/10.”

· OK, come on. We don’t need a large negative randomised control trial to call this one out. For a start, you could just drink two glasses of milk. I rang Night Time: its representative didn’t want to tell me how much melatonin was in the milk because that was commercially sensitive material, but did agree that it was nothing like the doses in the melatonin tablets you can buy in America and also that it wouldn’t be sedating if you drank Night Time during the day. They just milk their cows in the morning, because melatonin is made overnight and some of it comes out in milk. This milk, I would say, is milk.

· Night Time picked up the phone after the third ring, and the whole operation took about four minutes in total, and I reckon that the Guardian probably pays me much less for that effort than the Mirror pays Angela Dowden. The bottom line is, I’m wasted here in the science section. I want my own nutrition column. It could go something like this.

· Melatonin is naturally produced by your own body overnight, and helps to set the diurnal cycle. It has mild sedating effects and is fat-soluble so it slips over the membranes in your kidneys and comes out whole in your urine. It’s the first piss of the day that you want (although do collect any that you do overnight and pop them in the fridge), and I’d recommend only drinking the middle half, because the first and last quarters have a bit more gunk in them. It’s tasty, thrifty, faddy and high in melatonin. I tried it this morning, and I have to say, I’m feeling tremendously relaxed.

At last, astrology

July 10th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, celebs, mail, mirror, nutritionists | No Comments »

At last, astrology

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 10, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· Not content with dragging our morality back to the Victorian era, the Daily Mail continues its campaign to to reduce us all to medieval superstition. No half-truths about the MMR jab, diet fads or air ionisers this week though, or rather, no more than normal. But they do publish an article by the author and alleged intellectual Jeanette Winterson about the amazing prescience of her own personal psychic astrologer. Now I can be a sceptical waverer of the “well I can see how the season of birth and winter vegetables in the womb might give you a certain temperament” school with the best of them. But please: when your psychic astrologer tells you to beware of triangular relationships and you’ve written at least two novels about them, the only mystery is the extent of your own credulity. Winterson says she bought a house – sight unseen! – at the behest of her astrologer. Or perhaps I’m being mean. No, hang on. “As a Virgo with a Gemini Moon, Mercury was apparently my ‘double ruler’,” writes Winterson. “Could it be coincidence that I had often used the word ‘mercurial’ to describe a character trait that is both my greatest weakness and my greatest strength?”

· The Mirror’s gossip columnists were delighted to spot Stephen Hawking at Stringfellows lapdancing club in London, where he was treated to dances by 19-year-old called “Tiger”. Perhaps she reminded him of his other Tiger, the Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder built to record cosmic rays at the McDonnell Centre for the Space Sciences. I’ll stop now.

· And finally, I am delighted to see the Consumers for Health Choice movement is still going great guns with its campaign against the EU’s sensible plans to regulate and label potentially dangerous dietary supplements and herbal remedies. This in the same week that high-dose zinc supplements (as doled out by alternative practitioners for “physical and mental development, protection and healing”) were shown to more than double men’s risk of prostate cancer. You might be interested to know that the managing director of Holland and Barrett, Barry Vickers, is one of the directors of CHC. Anyway, if you are still keen on high doses of zinc, Auravita ( will happily sell you 200mg zinc sulphate tablets at £5.99 for 90. But remember – that’s double the dose associated with prostate cancer. Just because it’s alternative doesn’t mean that it won’t kill you.