Drugs and water

May 15th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, quantum physics, religion, very basic science, water | 5 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 15, 2003
The Guardian

Talk about bad science

· A reader reminds me of the classic tale of Nathan Zohner, a teenager from Eagle Rock Junior High in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He, the story goes, interviewed 50 people about their opinions on stricter control of the dangerous chemical “dihydrogen monoxide”. And he had plenty of good reasons: it can cause excessive sweating or vomiting; it is a major component in acid rain; it can cause severe burns in its gaseous state; accidental inhalation can kill you; it contributes to erosion; it decreases the effectiveness of car brakes; and it has been found in the tumours of terminal cancer patients. After all that, it’s no wonder 43 out of 50 people supported a ban of the chemical, and good luck to them: dihydrogen monoxide, or H2O, is more commonly known as water.

· Tim Blackwell writes in to tell us about EnergeticMatrix, who have taken new age moron-fleecing to new heights with their e-dispenser programme which “works like an electronic medicine cabinet”, producing irritating flashing fractal patterns and bleepy noises, which frankly gave me a headache. You provide a hair sample or Polaroid picture for analysis on their “electro kinesiological reaction plate”. Somehow “powerful treatments” made up of “medicinal information, color, sound, frequency and geometry” are tailored “to the healing needs of the individual”. They say: “We must recalibrate our notions of what is possible in terms of alternative therapies when using this powerful new instrument.” But then if EnergeticMatrix can get £3,500 out of people for it then anything is possible.

· Calling all Steves: the National Centre for Science Education in America has concocted an excellent retort to those creationist lists of “scientists who doubt evolution”. After receiving too many emails asking if they could produce a list of scientists who do believe in evolution, they flinched, and decided to honour the late great Stephen Jay Gould by producing one consisting entirely of scientists called Steve. Or Stephan. Or Stephany if you’re a woman. Or Etienne if you’re French. The link is coming very soon…

· It was clash of the pop science titans again this week, as newsdesks around the world struggled to interpret a simple American Psychological Association press release. “Personality continues to change after 30,” announced the Washington Post. “Personality traits stick for life,” countered the Australian.

Be Very Afraid: The Bad Science Manifesto

April 3rd, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, cosmetics, MMR, nutritionists, quantum physics, religion | 6 Comments »

Be very afraid

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 3, 2003
The Guardian

It was the MMR story that finally made me crack. My friends had always seemed perfectly rational: now, suddenly, they were swallowing media hysteria, hook, line and sinker. All sensible scientific evidence was twisted to promote fear and panic. I tried to reason with them, but they turned upon me: I was another scientist trying to kill their baby.

Many of these people were hardline extremists, humanities graduates, who treated my reasoned arguments about evidence as if I was some religious zealot, a purveyor of scientism, a fool to be pitied. The time had clearly come to mount a massive counter-attack.

Science, you see, is the optimum belief system: because we have the error bar, the greatest invention of mankind, a pictorial representation of the glorious undogmatic uncertainty in our results, which science is happy to confront and work with. Show me a politician’s speech, or a religious text, or a news article, with an error bar next to it?

And so I give you my taxonomy of bad science, the things that make me the maddest. First, of course, we shall take on duff reporting: ill-informed, credulous journalists, taking their favourite loonies far too seriously, or misrepresenting good science, for the sake of a headline. They are the first against the wall.

Next we’ll move on the quacks: the creationists, the new-age healers, the fad diets. They’re sad and they’re lonely. I know that. But still they must learn. Advertisers, with their wily ways, and their preposterous diagrams of molecules in little white coats: I’ll pull the trigger.

And the same goes for the quantum spin on government science. I’m watching you all.

And finally, let us not forget the strays, the good scientists who have passed to the dark side. Was it those shares in that drug company, or the lust for fame and glory? Bad scientists, your days are numbered.

If you are a purveyor of bad science, be afraid. If you are on the side, of light and good, be vigilant: and for the love of Karl Popper, email me every last instance you find of this evil. Only by working joyously together can we free this beautiful, complex world from such a vile scourge.

Send your favourite bad science to: bad.science@guardian.co.uk
Dr Goldacre will be back next week