Bill Nelson wins the internet.

August 9th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, badscience, detox, homeopathy, nutritionists, pseudodiagnoses, quantum physics | 66 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday August 9 2008

image Silly season is in full swing. At the Telegraph, their correspondent has gone for a bioenergetic health audit. “The resident homoeopath, Katie Jermine, quizzed me about my diet, stress levels and lifestyle. She then strapped on a wristband and plugged me into an electronic device called the Quantum QXCI, which scanned my system for vitamins, minerals, food intolerances, toxicity, organ function, hormone balance, parasites, digestive disorders and stress levels.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Letters in Guardian about the Placebo piece

August 31st, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, homeopathy, letters, placebo, quantum physics, very basic science | 58 Comments »

Letters: Observing the benefits of placebos
Wednesday August 31, 2005
The Guardian

Ben Goldacre’s thought-provoking piece (A tonic for sceptics, August 29) moves forward the debate about Read the rest of this entry »

Big question time

May 19th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, quantum physics, religion | 7 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 19, 2005
The Guardian

Talk about bad science

Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? I want answers. Because with answers like these up my sleeve, I’d have solace and a bigger house. And what more could a boy wish for? But science is the last place I’d look.

So, this boring film, What the Bleep do we Know!? plays the new-age trick of mixing up quantum physics with the meaning of life, consciousness and healing. It includes the notion that saying nice things to water can alter its molecular structure. And they’re not the first.

Scientists routinely barge in on weird stuff, such as consciousness and quantum phenomena, and usually at the end of a career, once they’ve got your attention. If you ask me, it’s slightly grotesque.

Roger Penrose: brilliant maths, name made, Oxford, set up for life, then suddenly, big heave, out pops the book on quantum consciousness. Francis Crick, genius boy, discovers DNA, suddenly it’s 30 years later and he’s knocking out books on consciousness too.

Penrose and Hameroff’s hypothesis that microtubules might have something in them that precipitates a wave function collapse, and that this might have something to do with consciousness, is OK. It’s a nice idea. It smacks of the minimisation of mystery, the idea that quantum is weird, consciousness is weird, and we can’t have too much weird stuff going on in the universe so we’d better collapse the two together. It’s an indulgence, although to be fair it’s a fun one.

But compare Darwin and suddenly it all looks a bit trite. No nonsense for that boy. His last manuscript – contain your excitement – was called The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.

So what’s the difference between Penrose shooting off about quantum consciousness and these cheap new-age quantum truth peddlers? Like all scientists, although he was shooting at the stars and having fun, he still had the decency to label, clearly and separately, what was evidence and what was conjecture.

And more than that, like Darwin, he knew his stuff, which is probably why he didn’t feel the need to go off on one about self-help spirituality.

Read the last chapter of Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman for the real story on the outrageous weirdness of quantum phenomena – the bit where the waves turn into particles is particularly scary – and I defy you to still be worried about your place in the universe.

There are much stranger and more important things going on out there, and it is a lot more interesting than making stuff up.

dont fuck with chaz

Literate Molecules

May 12th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in channel 4, quantum physics, telegraph, water | 7 Comments »

Literate molecules

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 12, 2005
The Guardian

• Nobody is inviting me to any premieres for the US hit docudrama What the Bleep Do We Know!? — in cinemas next week — so all I know about it is the Telegraph magazine article that reader Ken Joy sent me. The film features the work of Dr Masaru Emoto, who, the article reports, has a PhD from the Open International University; it doesn’t mention that Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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.

Because you’re worth it

November 27th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cosmetics, homeopathy, ions, MMR, quantum physics | 8 Comments »

Because you’re worth it

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 27, 2003
The Guardian

· Reader Helen Porter writes in to tell me about the Ion-Conditioning Hairdryer, which uses “Patented Trionic Action” to “micronize” water molecules and, impressively for a hairdryer, magically hydrate your hair. The Journal of Trionic Physics, for those of you who thought they made those long words up, was the name of a Jefferson Airplane fanzine. But I digress: the manufacturer, Bioionic, is also the inventor of Ionic Hair Retexturising (IHR). And it’s not just a new way to straighten your hair, it’s a whole new branch of physics.

· Colour Nation, hairdressers to the stars in Soho, London, offers Bioionic’s IHR. Its public relations material explains how it works: “Positive ions have lost an electron, and are considered unhealthy,” whereas negative ions “have gained an electron, and greatly assist in a body’s mood, energy level, and overall health”. When these benevolent negative ions encounter water, “the water molecules are broken down to a fraction of their previous size . . . diminutive enough to penetrate through the cuticle, and eventually into the core of each hair”.

· I might be wrong, but surely shrinking water molecules must cost more than the £230 Colour Nation charges for IHR? The only other groups who have managed to create that kind of superdense quark-gluon plasma used a relativistic heavy ion collider, and if Colour Nation has got one of those at the back of the salon then I’m glad I don’t live in the flat upstairs. Although a Mirror reporter who had the compressed molecule treatment did say her hair “itched and smelled of chemicals” afterwards. Maybe there is something more potent than negative ions in there after all.

· Meanwhile a tip from a friend who, may I just point out, doused for the sex of her baby. She was delighted, at her antenatal yoga class, after being told how immunisations would kill her baby, to be handed Homeopathy News. The pamphlet mentions a study from the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital in which 80% of 25 children reported an improvement in their asthma after homeopathy. Which sounds impressive. But there was no placebo control group, and it doesn’t seem to have actually been published anywhere (or not anywhere peer reviewed). Which doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just remember that in a recent review of all the evidence on homeopathy – I’ll say it again – it was shown, overall, to be no more effective than a placebo …

You’ve been tangled

September 25th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, homeopathy, quantum physics | 2 Comments »

You’ve been tangled

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 25, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· I don’t mean to be a suspicious soul, but ever since the great Sokal scam, when a professor of physics managed to sneak a hoax paper called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” into a cultural studies journal, pretending that quantum electrodynamics somehow proved the veracity of postmodernist textual critiques, I’m always a bit wary of far-out articles in unlikely journals. But here at the Institute of Bad Science I’m feeling very good about our latest find: “The Entanglement Model of Homeopathy as an Example of Generalised Entanglement Predicted by Weak Quantum Theory,” published last month in Research in Complementary Medicine and Classical Naturopathy.

· This might be a German journal, but it is by no means invisibly obscure: its impact factor, the figure used by academics to measure whether a journal has a high profile or not, derived from the average number of citations per article published, was 0.63 in 2001. To give you some idea of what this means, the stellar Nature got 28, and Biochemistry, a good journal, came in at 4.1.

· I could quote the whole abstract, but it’s so barking that if I did you’d all stop reading immediately, and, as my editor helpfully says, the first rule of feature writing is never file anything that nobody will read. So check it out for yourself at

But basically, their brilliant entanglement model is based on the concept of “Weak Quantum Theory”, which has only 24 entries on Google and is authoritatively referenced to, er, another paper by the same guys. They seem to take the ideas of complementarity and entanglement from quantum physics, usually used to describe things like position, momentum, and spin of particles, and then reinterpret the whole game, saying that “epistemic complementarity can produce entanglement”.

Which is to say, similar, or complementary, ideas can produce quantum entanglement. Or as they put it: “It transpires that homeopathy uses two instances of generalised entanglement: one between the remedy and the original substance (potentiation principle) and one between the individual symptoms of a patient and the general symptoms of a remedy picture (similarity principle). By bringing these two elements together, double entanglement ensues, which is reminiscent of cryptographic and teleportation applications of entanglement in QM proper.” Indeed.

Let’s hear it for Jewel

August 21st, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, celebs, mail, quantum physics | 2 Comments »

Let’s hear it for Jewel

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 21, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· It was a pleasure to find Jewel, the “raunchy dance diva with an interest in atomic physics”, pontificating on science in the Daily Telegraph. Its correspondent could barely contain his excitement as she teasingly began to reveal her “research into super-string theory”. Watch her run with renaissance studies: “Empirical knowledge began to reign supreme – knowing something through truth and fact and experiment, instead of spiritual and religious implication.” It’s looking good. Her eyes are “shining with enthusiasm”. Hit me with the facts, Jewel. “In super-string theory and unified theory they have to answer mystical questions again… they’re saying that alchemical experiment is affected by the observer. It’s coming back to… What is the creative force in the universe? Because they’re seeing that there is one.” Quite.

· I’d be a bigger fan of Jewel and her admirers at the Telegraph if only they’d followed the lead of the Australian Daily Telegraph, a Murdoch tabloid, which this week printed the first photograph of a whale farting. It’s a veritable depth charge – and the best reason I can think of for saving the Minke whale, if only for its military potential.

· The US government’s national centre for complementary and alternative medicine funds respectable work into stress and heart conditions. But I fear it’s in danger of overstretching itself in taking part in the “rapid response grant programme on bioterrorism-related research”. Inviting grant proposals, the centre says: “We encourage applications for innovative research targeted at testing complementary and alternative medicine therapeutic or preventive agents for pathogens that might conceivably be vehicles for biological warfare activities.”

· Anyone going for the cash and glamour of military research just because science isn’t rock and roll enough should pay more attention to the Atkins diet saga. For the first time a theory is being treated like a celebrity: the Daily Mail has portrayed low-carbohydrate Atkins as the saviour of modern womankind, especially after a study showed people lost, err, 4% more weight on it, with no health complications after, umm, a whole six months. Now, after an equally trivial trial, no, in fact, a passing comment from one “expert”, who, it transpired this week, has links to the Flour Advisory Board (of all the sinister carbohydrate peddlers in the world) it is suddenly a potential killer. Not even George Best was booted off his pedestal so quickly.

The Sokal affair

June 5th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, postmodernist bollocks, quantum physics, very basic science | 6 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 5, 2003
The Guardian

Talk about bad science

We’ve been focusing on the negative for too long: it’s time I introduced you to my hero. Alan Sokal is an icon for bad science hunters the world over, the man who pulled off the greatest academic scam of our times, and gave post-modernist commentators on science the public slapping they’ve always deserved.

A physics professor in New York, in the 1980s Sokal went to teach in Nicaragua because he approved of the Sandinista government. When he returned to America, the liberal left agenda seemed to have been hijacked by hip intellectuals and postmodernist literary theorists teaching that reality is a socially constructed text, about which you can say anything, as long as you say it murkily.

A political pragmatist, Sokal doubted they had much to offer. More than that, he was horrified that they were rubbishing science. Suspecting they didn’t know their scientific arse from their elbow, he decided to attack. He wrote and submitted a spoof article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity to Social Text, a trendy academic journal. By flattering the editors’ ideological preconceptions, he hoped his meaningless waffle might just get published.

The article is a masterpiece of foggy prose. In it, Sokal claimed Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic speculations had been confirmed by recent work in quantum field theory. He suggested that the axiom of equality in mathematical set theory was analogous to the homonymous concept in feminist politics. He employed scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that even an A-level student should have spotted as rubbish, but crammed the article with nonsensical – but authentic – quotes about physics and mathematics, by prominent French and American postmodern intellectuals.

Of course the article was published: they couldn’t resist a physicist switching sides. But did the journal subject the article to peer review by a scientist before publishing? No. Did the article say anything meaningful at all? The author certainly didn’t think so.

The day that Social Text came out, Sokal began deriding the editors in the media. They attacked him for dishonesty and some post-modernist commentators suggested he needed psychiatric treatment. Sokal emerged a hero. He wrote a book, attacking them, in French. Go Sokal! So visit the website ( ), read the article (, tell your friends and buy his book, out now in English (ISBN: 1861976313). And one day, these intellectual fraudsters could be out of a job.