Prion and on and on

July 22nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, herbal remedies, scare stories, times, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 22, 2004
The Guardian

· Bad Science business as usual in the British “news” media. Several of you were delighted to spot the Times worrying us about BSE all over again, with a picture of what caused it: not a prion, mysteriously, but a picture of a nice big bacterium. And It was labelled as the “BSE virus”, which will come as news to the people who spend their time worrying about what to do with the teeny prion molecules on surgical implements. For future reference, the bacteria are the big roundish things with lots of other stuff going on inside them, and the prions are the bendy wee molecules.

· Perry Groves has been reading the Independent on Sunday. “It appears to have taken the viewpoint that all nanoscience is dangerous,” she writes. “It then blows any credibility it may have had for this position with the sentence ‘Nanotechnology, which is set to revolutionise industry and everyday life, deals with particles so small the laws of physics no longer apply.'” So that’s very small, then.

· The naive quest to find some intellectual consistency in the world of alternative therapies continues unabated. Reader Guy Herbert always thought the point of traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine (mysteriously conflated by western magpies) was that old was good, and ideas changing in the light of new evidence was a sinister modern invention. Until he read the London Evening Standard: “Cupping is a healing technique in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine that involves the placing of glass jars over acupuncture points. This creates a vacuum that increases blood circulation and detoxification.” “So,” he writes, with glorious pedantry, “at least now they accept Harvey’s blood circulation theory. But surely something as modern as the 17th century can’t be any good?”

· And the ever vigilant Andy Mabbett sends us news that the Birmingham Evening Mail has exclusive rights on a major breakthrough in microbiology, with a story about a former lorry driver who has “invented a wonder cream which could spell the end of hospital superbugs”. Over to our truck driving genius: “We found it killed everything. It was the first potion that killed every known bacteria.” That’s every known bacteria. “Managing infection outbreaks costs the NHS over £1bn annually,” said Mr Watts, his main investor and the chairman of a recruitment agency. No wonder the Evening Mail think he’s “set to make a fortune”.

Where to find the alchemists of Fleet Street

April 8th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, quantum physics, religion, times, very basic science | 3 Comments »

Where to find the alchemists of Fleet Street

Talk about Bad science here

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 8, 2004
The Guardian

· I can tell you’re all secretly proud of me for not bothering to write about Coca-Cola’s abandoned Dasani water. Meanwhile those medieval alchemists at the Times cheerfully informed us that “calcium is a legal requirement in UK bottled water, but the calcium chloride, a bromide derivative, used in the process produced too much bromate”.

· Turning one element into another has always been tricky; but the long and honourable tradition of turning made-up pseudoscientific nonsense into hard cash continues unabated. The West Sussex County Times reports that “a world famous lecturer will visit Horsham in June”. Harry Oldfield, “author, inventor and scientist” no less, will explain his electro-crystal therapy, which he compares to “a molecular massage, using sound from electrically stimulated quartz crystals to restore the energy field’s balance.” Sounds expensive. “He has also developed a computer system which produces images similar to those produced in Kirlian photography.” It’s not so much Mr Oldfield who bothers me, but that a paper can cheerfully report this alongside a story about a new Brown Owl for the Brownies, the menace of illegal motorcycle riding, a student fashion show, and a garden centre advert.

· Meanwhile, Ohio creationists have, by a huge majority, passed their new Academic Freedom Act 2004, providing teachers and instructors at public institutions with “the affirmative right and freedom to present scientific, historical, theoretical, or evidentiary information pertaining to alternative theories or points of view on the subject of biological or physical origins.” You don’t have to be a product of intelligent design to know what that means: and they’re the most powerful nation on earth. The Deans of Science faculties have collectively and cheerfully suggested in the past that they won’t interview candidates from states where schools can’t teach science properly.

· Why not give your kids the chance to hone their rhetorical skills at the UK’s creationist Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in Bristol. “Many animals are clearly related. Domestic cats for example are like very small lions,” its website points out. Which leads on to useful exercises for schoolchildren, such as: “How many basic created kinds would there have been?” And: “To follow Darwinism is to recognise only the fleshly side of our natures, and, as we know, the flesh perishes; Darwinism, in other words, is a philosophy of death.” Harsh words. Bring on the darkness.

Water torture

January 15th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in africa, bad science, celebs, homeopathy, times, very basic science, water | 3 Comments »

Water torture

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 15, 2004
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to catch a Sunday Times beauty journalist out. “Harriet Griffey thought bottled water was a con, until mountain-pure H < ->2 O healed her senses.” Let’s stop her right there. I think I can write these things for myself these days. Don’t tell me: water comes in funny “clusters”, which only beauty journalists and the people who make the stuff can detect. You make them smaller with a special secret process, and then they hydrate and absorb toxins better. Oh, and the special water is really expensive (let’s say £13.95 a bottle) but they’ve proved it works with some special science. Which hasn’t been published anywhere. Did I miss anything?

· Let’s just check the inventor’s website. He has an authentically large beard, and the process works “under the principle of implosion and magnetic transfer”. It continues: “This natural magnetic transfer using electromagnetic waves does not come from using magnets or electricity.” Wow, neither? Now that’s impressive. Back to lovely Harriet, in her white chiffon A-line lab coat. “Well, that’s the science _ I am as sceptical as the next person, and am not convinced by hype.” Yes: she’s going to prove it for herself. Experimentally. “Take one lemon. Cut it in half and squeeze each half into two identical glasses. Place one next to a bottle of Blue Water, the other on the opposite side of the room. Wait five minutes, then taste … While the juice in one glass remained wincingly sharp, the lemon in the other, placed next to the Blue Water, was noticeably softer and less tart. Even through glass, the effect of the water is enough to change the taste of the lemon juice.” Head of particle physics on line one for Ms Harriet Griffey.

· Meanwhile, it was a delight to see intellectual Jeanette Winterson, following her recent article on the predictive powers of her favourite astrologer, writing in the Times on Saturday about a project to treat Aids sufferers in Botswana – where 48% of the population is HIV positive – with homeopathy. Some might say it was slightly patronising, unrealistic or even pointless to take your western, patient-empowering, anti-medical establishment and culturally specific placebo to a country that has little healthcare infrastructure, is frequently engaged in a water war with Namibia, and suffers frequent droughts. But we can only guess what the people of Botswana might say.

MMR – Never Mind the Facts

December 11th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, channel five, express, independent, mail, MMR, statistics, telegraph, times | 30 Comments »

This article won the £2,000 ABSW Best Science Feature Award 2003

Channel Five’s new drama about the link between MMR and autism makes great TV. But it gets the story, and the science, disastrously wrong. How did we get to such a level of confusion and hysteria about this vaccine? Ben Goldacre unravels the real MMR story

Thursday December 11, 2003
The Guardian

There’s not a lot you need to know about the link between MMR and autism, except that there’s very little evidence to suggest any link at all. You don’t have to take my word for it, because I’ll describe the science later Read the rest of this entry »

How to increase your staying power

November 20th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dna, penises, religion, times, very basic science | 8 Comments »

How to increase your staying power

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 20, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· I’d always assumed that bad science in contraception was limited to delirious ramblings from the Catholic church about the HIV virus being small enough to fit through the gaps between the latex molecules. But perhaps not. As I lay in bed with Mrs Bad Science on a lazy Sunday morning, and our minds turned to thoughts of Barry White, and trains going into tunnels, and absolutely not having any babies at all, we reached hungrily for the reassuring certainty of barrier contraception. “I’ve got something very special for you,” she smiled.

· My treat, it emerged, was an optimistically large packet of Durex Performa: a new kind of condom with a special cream in the teat “to help control climax and prolong sexual excitement for longer lasting lovemaking”. Maybe you’ve seen the adverts. They feature, rather cleverly, a picture of “a very long screw”. And the magic ingredient? Five per cent benzocaine gel, a local anaesthetic related to cocaine: to make your willy go numb. In the spirit of the noblest of Victorian gentleman self-experimenters, I turned it inside out, licked the surface, and immediately lost all sensation in my tongue. It’s either very bad science or very good science – I can’t be sure – but either way, putting local anaesthetic in condoms is just adding insult to injury.

· While I was busy sulking, one of my spies, Tim Eyes, a molecular biologist, was reading about the “secrets of the body” in the Funday Times, the children’s section of the Sunday Times. Hold your breath. “Despite the fact that all humans have similar genes, we are not all the same,” the section revealed. “This is because of slight genetic differences in everyone’s genetic make-up. DNA is made up of four chemical bases – adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine – and each gene is made up of three of these.” Only three, huh? That’s enough to code for, like, one whole amino acid. We’d look a bit like those bodybuilders’ protein drinks, only without the tin. But there’s more. “This means that there are 64 different possible combinations, and when you multiply this by the number of cells in the body, it shows the chances of having the exact same makeup is virtually zero.” Only 64 different genes. And different ones in every cell, too. A planet of biologists stands corrected.

Can anal retention help you beat depression?

September 18th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, express, herbal remedies, new scientist, references, times, weight loss | 5 Comments »

Can anal retention help you beat depression?

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 18, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· You might wonder why I’m being so anally retentive about everything this week. I can only say in my defence that I’ve been doing my best to follow Hiroyuki Nishigaki’s excellent book: “How to Good-Bye Depression: If You Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday. Malarkey? or Effective Way?” available now on Amazon (£14.49).

· The Independent on Sunday managed to infuriate me by carrying an interesting story about comfort eating in rats – apparently it blocks the effect of a hormone implicated in stress – but then not bothering to tell us anything as useful, or crucial to the story, as which hormone. Meanwhile their books section, as is traditional, carried a string of articles that nobody without a PhD in literature could possibly understand.

· The Times on Saturday managed to cheer me up by starting a flatteringly derivative bad science column called “Junk Medicine”. “Chelation therapists, magnet pushers, Cherie and Carole: you are being watched,” sounded eerily familiar, so I decided to watch the Times closely. On Sunday my vigilance was rewarded when its sister paper told us: “The remedy that has performed well in trials to reduce the pain of postherpetic neuralgia is reishi (Ganoderma lucidum).” When they say “performed well in trials” I presume they mean the one trial that was done, in 1998, of four people, with no control group. Find out more at the writer’s awkwardly confident www.whatreallyworks.co.uk, or come chat with me on their excellently unpoliced message boards…

· Meanwhile the Sunday Express claimed “clinical research published in the journal Life Sciences” showed pycnogenol, an extract of pine bark, to be effective at treating blood pressure over 12 weeks. This study is not on medline, or in the Life Sciences index, or in the latest edition of the journal.

· After this orgy of pickiness I was dizzy with over-excitement at spotting some bad science in New Scientist: “A new kind of machine … locates and measures your body fat. It could then tell you exactly where you could do with losing a few pounds and even advise you on exercises for your problem areas.” Normally I wouldn’t dare to question the überboffins, but this sounds a lot like the “spot reducing” myth, the idea that muscles use fat from overlying tissue rather than the whole body, which is widely regarded as rubbish.