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.

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.

Watch out, Caplin’s about

July 31st, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, celebs, homeopathy, nutritionists, religion | 3 Comments »

Watch out, Caplin’s about

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 31, 2003
The Guardian

Talk bad science

· Browsing through the August edition of Marie Claire, looking for preposterous cosmetics ads I hasten to add (stand by for next week), what could be more delightful for the noble bad-science spotter than to come across a photo story about Cherie Blair, also featuring her great friend and aide, New Ager Carole Caplin. Cherie seems much more relaxed around Caplin, Marie Claire reports, and “a homeopathic tincture stands on the table”. “Miss Caplin is back, looming over her to touch up her lipstick,” the journalist writes. Run, Cherie, run!

· It’s possible you don’t know just how bad science Caplin’s world is. Here is a brief tour. When Cherie was suffering with swollen ankles, Caplin introduced her to “Jack Temple, Homeopathic Dowser Healer”, as his website says. Here is Jack on cramp: “For years many people have suffered with cramp. By dowsing, I discovered that this is due to the fact that the body is not absorbing the element ‘scandium’ which is linked to and controls the absorption of magnesium phosphate.” And on general health complaints: “Based on my expertise in dowsing _ I noted that many of my patients were suffering from severe deficiencies of carbon in their systems. The ease in which people these days suffer hairline fractures and broken bones is glaringly apparent to the eyes that are trained to see.”

· Being a devout Catholic, Cherie might want to bear in mind the Vatican’s “Christian Reflection on the New Age” document released a few months ago. At the time, Cardinal Poupard said you’d be better off believing in “encounters with aliens” than New Age “weak thinking”. And the Vatican should know: they’ve got a committee of scientists retained to make certain that miracles are inexplicable by modern science before they make you a saint.

· Caplin also once worked for the 5,000-strong cult Exegesis, who were accused of brainwashing, and who recruited people by saying that its therapy methods could solve personal problems. David Mellor, then a Home Office minister, condemned the organisation as “puerile, dangerous and profoundly wrong” and it was investigated by the police (although no charges were ever brought). Its leader was a Rolls Royce driving businessman, the son of a meat salesman from Essex who changed his name from Robert Fuller to Robert D’Aubigny.

Work out your mind

June 12th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, brain gym, religion, water | 15 Comments »

Work out your mind

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 12, 2003
The Guardian

Talk about bad science

· Children are so sweet, so trusting – those pseudoscientists just can’t help but prey on them. A reader writes about his experience at a primary school in northern England. He found they were employing a technique called Brain Gym. It’s from California. “Brain Gym appears to comprise a series of simple hand-eye coordination tasks which allegedly improve learning. Before doing these tasks, children are required to take a swig of water and hold it in their mouths for a few seconds until the teacher tells them they can swallow. When I asked why, the teacher, who had been sent on a Brain Gym course by the school, informed me that the water was partially absorbed through the roof of the children’s mouths and was absorbed by the brain, improving learning.”

In an ideal world, we would be teaching children enough science in school that they were able to stand up to a teacher who was spouting this kind of rubbish. Or perhaps I’m wrong: perhaps the teacher had misunderstood the course. Being a trusting soul I went to their website and had a peek: after all, if education authorities are going to spend my taxes on this stuff, there must be something in it. Here I learned that Brain Gym was a form of “educational kinesiology,” which “focuses on the performance of specific physical activities that activate the brain for optimal storage and retrieval of information”. “Focus is the ability to coordinate the back and front areas of the brain…Centering is the ability to coordinate the top and bottom areas of the brain… Brain Gym movements interconnect the brain in these dimensions.” On the off chance that it might not be rubbish I looked it up on the main public research databases. Nothing supported their assertions. Brain Gym do, however, run their own journal, although I’ve got a very strong feeling that it’s probably not peer-reviewed. Hungry for more? “A research report including over 10 years of information collected from field studies and experimental research is available for $25 (plus shipping) through the Foundation office.”

www.braingym.org

· Fans of Brain Gym aren’t the only ones targeting children: Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm has the distinction of being the only pseudoscience zoo in the UK. If you were hoping for New Agers in cages, you’ll be let down, but if the idea of Christian creationists making their last stand against evolutionary theory – quite literally amongst the horse shit – amuses you, I suggest you start with their website. “To a rational mind there are at least three proofs that a creator exists.” www.noahsarkzoofarm.co.uk

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