Tessa’s Jowels

April 30th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, oxygen | 24 Comments »

Okay, here’s the deal: we’re talking about non-disgraced non-former minister Tessa Jowell, who has reportedly been paying large amounts of her hard-earned cash for “oxygen facials”, and from the same celebrity beautician who does Paltrow and Moss. At some stage, just so that you know in advance, I intend to make a joke about Tessa’s jowels. Read the rest of this entry »

Up in the air

June 16th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, oxygen, very basic science | 4 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 16, 2005
The Guardian

· Do you ever get the feeling that a story is just disappearing before your very eyes? There I was, cheerfully reading about the Opur Oxygen Canister that reader Diana McAllister sent me. Why would anyone want to inhale expensive oxygen from a tin that costs £10, you rightly ask. After all, if you’re the proud owner of two lungs then you already inhale more than the average, and oxygen, like love, is free and all around us. Feel the love. Breathe the oxygen. But no. There is a reason. “Just 300 years ago, the density [sic] of oxygen in the environment on Earth was 30%. Today it is 19-20%.” Breathe into that thought. Feel the bad science washing over you.

· Now I am an innocent soul at heart, with an inquiring mind. Perhaps I’m wrong on this one. I mean, maybe things have moved on since I did A-level chemistry a whole 12 years ago, but I vaguely remember at least 200 years before that some French bloke called Lavoisier burned candles in closed containers and found that only a fifth of the air was consumed, called that bit “oxygen” instead of Phlogiston and then sat wondering what the other 80% of air was all about. The answer is “being nitrogen”, for those of you a few hundred years behind the game.

· But the Opur people have a far higher opinion of your scientific knowledge than I do. Evolution, they think you will be thinking: surely we could evolve to deal with this change in atmospheric oxygen, in a mere 300 years. They have an answer for that too. “Simple living cell creatures [sic] will adapt to such changes in the environment. However, man has not become more efficient at extracting oxygen from the air.” No. Here we are living in a hostile alien environment with a third less oxygen than we evolved for, a whole 300 years after this gigantic change in the composition of the earth’s atmosphere. Now, I’ve got as much respect for an argument deploying comparative physiology as the next man. But this guff appears almost 200 times on Google (www.tinyurl.com/bcuql). So I bravely write to half a dozen sites at random, and they all, all, write back, within 12 hours, to say they’re taking these quotes off their webpages. Check it out. I’m more effective than the ASA. We’re waiting to talk to the distributor, but the man from retailer www.opuruk.co.uk rang me back. “By the time your story comes out we will no longer even sell this product,” he said, which is a shame, since I have no idea if it is any good and rather wanted to try it. Where did my story go? Only another 185 retailers to go.

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 »

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.

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 …”

More than water?

January 22nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, detox, oxygen, water | 7 Comments »

More than water?

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 22, 2004
The Guardian

· What is it with pseudo scientists and water? After last week’s cluster nonsense, Caroline Stacey was getting excited in the Independent’s Food and Drink section about Oxygizer water. “Oxygizer doesn’t just slake a thirst, it provides the body with extra oxygen too. A litre contains 150mg of oxygen, around 25 times more than what’s in a litre of tap water.” Handy. “This apparently helps remove toxins and ensures a stronger immune system, as well as assisting the respiratory system, so you recover better from exercise … cleverly they’ve added something to water that’s not an additive.”

· So, once more in the spirit of noble Victorian gentleman scientist self experimenters, I decided to put Oxygizer to the test. Back in the 60s, a scientist in New York managed to get mice breathing underwater, from a saline solution at six times normal atmospheric pressure, just like in that movie The Abyss – it takes a lifetime of popular science books to collect this kind of trivia. Unfortunately, the mice died after 18 hours, and I didn’t want to upset the animal experimentation lobby.

· So, I decided to drink the stuff after a three-mile run. I take in about 100ml of oxygen with every breath, or 150mg, and, like most humans, I only absorb about 30mg of that. That’s 300mg a minute, but after serious exercise it goes up to about 3,000mg a minute. To help myself recover significantly faster after my run, I figured I’d need an extra 20% of oxygen, or 600mg a minute. That meant drinking 40 litres of Oxygizer over 10 minutes, getting the stuff down me at the fearsome rate of one litre every 15 seconds, at a cost of £120, and almost doubling my weight, but it’s all in the name of science. Fairly soon my circulatory system was so overloaded that I was producing several pints of frothy sputum at the back of my throat. Then my abdomen burst open and my Versace running shorts were ruined.

· Needless to say, I was not best pleased. But there’s something rather exciting that I’ve just discovered about the Guardian website: our articles tend to come out right at the top of Google keyword searches so, as my final act of revenge, en route to the morgue, you’ll forgive me for using the word Oxygizer as much as Oxygizer possible just in case anyone Oxygizer ever looks Oxygizer up to buy some Oxygizer …

The truth about oxygen

July 17th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, ions, mail, oxygen | 6 Comments »

The truth about oxygen

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 17, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· There’s nothing more amusing than a battle for truth between competing schools of New Age bunkum. See how the Daily Mail gushed over the Elanra ioniser from Equilibra. It is, apparently, “the first ioniser that creates negative ions small enough to be inhaled”. So, smaller than your mouth then. Apparently it could be “a huge breakthrough in treating a range of illnesses from asthma and depression to migraine, insomnia and sinusitis”. Not content with its share of the gullible punter market, Equilibra undermines its competitors, claiming on its website to have invented “the world’s only patented technology for reproducing ions of oxygen that are small enough to be ingested”. And that: “Other ion generators can claim to produce negative ions, but they are NOT small or ingestible, and cannot enter your body.” Helpfully Equilibra provides a table of the other ionisers on the market. Snortingly we laugh with it at the large negative oxygen ions of its competitors.

· I looked up the claims on Medline, home of all medical papers. But I found no mention of “small negative ions”, nor does Equilibra give any real explanation, though a nice diagram explains they move at 1.9 cm2/Vs in a 1 V/cm electrical field. “Research conducted at La Trobe University in Australia demonstrated that these ions cause an increase in the body’s production of immunoglobulin A, implicated in enhancing the human immune system,” says Equilibra. I couldn’t find this on Medline or La Trobe’s site either. Bear in mind an Elanra costs £400. Equilibra’s other products include what seem to be laminated playing cards with nice patterns on, or Universal Harmonisers should I say, which for £40 will increase the levels of biophotons in your water. Special photographs with wavy lines on show how they can protect you from the radiowaves generated by your mobile phone. The Daily Mail didn’t cover those, though “all our energy products have been scientifically tested and proven to increase the biophoton levels in water which when consumed enhances the ATP response in the body and therefore they work very effectively”. Biophoton is an obscure phrase for the light emitted by living cells. God knows how they get into water.

· I was surprised not to find a disclaimer on the site, though Equilibra does suggest: “If you do not wish to work through your fears and energy blockages, and clear and balance your energy fields, do not order the energy products for use upon the body.”

So what has ozone ever done for us?

June 26th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, celebs, oxygen, scare stories | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 26, 2003
The Guardian

· What is it with alternative therapists and oxygen? Last week’s Time Out offered a glowing report on ozone therapy, and the fact that they called it O3 (with a superscript) should be enough to tell you that whoever wrote it wasn’t necessarily paying attention during basic chemistry. God only knows what its sub-editors think they’re playing at. They go on to tell us that “O3 is a clear blue gas (hence the colour of the sky)”. I hate to use the same gag twice in a month, but if you really want to know why the sky is blue, and I know this is getting boring now, you only have to type “why is the sky blue?” into any search engine on the internet, and you will be instantly directed to www.why-is-the-sky-blue.org, where your question will be answered. And it has nothing to do with ozone.

· Now it occurs to me that since the World Health Organisation is worried about monitoring levels of ozone that exceed guidelines by a few micrograms per cubic metre – since it has been implicated in all kinds of conditions, including exacerbation of asthma and bronchitis, headaches, fatigue, nausea and respiratory problems – we might all be a little concerned about Enrida Kelly, a “naturopath” in west London, flogging ozone therapy “mixed in a ratio of 99 parts oxygen to one part ozone”. But not our experts at Time Out. In fact, they reserved special praise for its deployment in colonic irrigation, “bringing the benefits of oxygenation, and cleaning the parts of the body that can benefit most”. Check out Kelly’s website at www.ozonetherapy.co.uk. Lots of wonderful promises: “Many people have had their limbs saved by such therapy.” And a lovely disclaimer: “Though we will be glad to assess and supervise sessions aimed at improving your well being, we do not ‘treat’ or aim to ‘cure’ disease.” But not a randomised control trial in sight.

· Speaking of experts, WebFusion was lucky enough to get Philippa Forrester, “Tomorrow’s World presenter and technology expert”, to endorse its products in its latest round of advertising. “WebFusion has always represented innovative thinking, the best technology, and great value,” she says. Forrester, you may remember, is so technically adept that she was last seen in the paedophilia edition of Brass Eye, holding her (big) head behind a T-shirt printed with a tiny body, saying: “Wearing a T-shirt like this, the paedophile can disguise himself as a child.”

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.