More than water?

January 22nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in Uncategorized | 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 …

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.

Setting up camp in the healing field

July 3rd, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, brain gym, dna, very basic science, water | 3 Comments »

Setting up camp in the healing field

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 3, 2003
The Guardian

· Doing a New Age Bad Science Glastonbury Special is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Which is not to say I’ve had a change of heart: within five minutes of entering the Healing Field last weekend, I was handed a copy of the “Avalon Rising” leaflet. Pay close attention: “Celtic in your DNA? Cutting edge information has established the possibility that a substrand in our DNA connects us through the energy grid to one of 12 sacred sites, stargates or electromagnetic vortexes to enable the vibrational rate of Mother Earth to be energetically stabilised. Glastonbury is one such site. Its guardians are the time travelling grail lines of Celtic/Gaelic Britain: you!” Pseudoscientists everywhere, please note how easy it is to come across like a white hippy racial supremacist when you splash around with big words you don’t understand.

· Brain Gym has struck a chord with many of you since we covered it last month. You might remember the jargon-heavy “educational kinesiologists” from California, with no peer-reviewed data to back up their grand claims for improving academic performance, who were being employed at considerable expense by UK local education authorities. I was moaning that teachers should be teaching our children how to spot this kind of pseudoscience, rather than peddling it. So I was heartened to receive frontline reports from science teachers of the fun they have teasing Brain Gym tutors visiting their schools.

· One was told that after watching telly your brain goes to sleep for eight hours: “Very precise about that, she was. But don’t worry, as long as you sit with your ankles crossed and make a funny shape with your hands this will ‘protect you from the electro-magnetic rays’. She was even kind enough to post me the handouts detailing the Pace [positive-active-clear-energetic] which ‘increases and balances electrical energy to the neocortex _ allowing reason rather than reaction (choice)’ and ‘increases polarity across cell membranes for more efficient thought processing’,” our source reports. My favourite exercise is Brain Buttons: “While holding the navel area with one hand, rub with the thumb and finger of other on hollow areas just below the collar bone on each side of the sternum.” Why? Because, you heartless cynics, “buttons above carotid artery supply fresh oxygenated blood to brain, helps lung/brain function … and brings attention to gravitational centre of body.”

Cures for quacks

June 19th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, dangers, herbal remedies, water | 8 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 19, 2003
The Guardian

· The plural of anecdote is not data. Although it’s always very tempting. So although I’ll contain my evil desires to titillate you with tales of patients who’ve needed liver transplants after taking Chinese herbal remedies, I’m very amused by an article in the Lancet about a Chinese remedy company who seem to be putting artificial drugs in their potions. Spes capsules were examined by physicians treating a patient who developed Cushing’s Syndrome and were found to contain betamethasone, a potent synthetic glucocorticoid you wouldn’t expect to find in any magic herb. They also found alprazolam, a synthetic benzodiazepine much like the addictive “mother’s little helpers” of the 60s, which might go some way to explain the improvement in “quality of life” claimed for Spes. Neither was mentioned on the label. Alternative therapy fans might bear in mind that, if a herbal remedy works it’s probably got something potent in it.

· A BMJ paper recently found that children being treated with Chinese herbal skin creams for eczema were on average receiving five times the recommended adult dose of dexamethasone, a potent steroid. Which makes it very amusing that the alternative medicine lobby has ganged up against an EU directive to use proper ingredients labels and submit to regulation, like anyone else peddling a medicine. They say it’s part of a campaign by the medical establishment to discredit their products, and 5,000 people marched against the regulations in London last Sunday. They had Tory MP John Redwood lambasting the EU for over-regulating us. But even the Daily Mail, champion of anecdotal evidence, favourably reported a study of 200,000 people that showed a 0.4% increase in deaths from all causes in people taking beta-carotene supplements, and no benefit at all from vitamin E.

· 200,000 people seems to be enough for a study disproving alternative therapies to be taken seriously. If you’re in the business of promoting pseudoscience, standards seem to be less stringent. Last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph devoted the whole of page 3 to alternative therapy porn, with a story on how drinking the Queen’s Royal Deeside spring water improved arthritis symptoms in two-thirds of patients. It was a study of 34 patients over three months and there was no control group. It’s hard to imagine an experiment where it would have been easier to come up with a convincing placebo. Water.

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

Water Torture

May 22nd, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, MMR, water | 5 Comments »

Water torture

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 22, 2003
The Guardian

Talk about bad science

· The orgy of pseudoscience continues unabated. Paul Nagle writes in to tell us about www.finewaters.com, “for water connoisseurs and their accompanying lifestyle”. It’s an epic work that includes reviews of over 250 different types of water, and instructions on how to do a tasting: “Is it dry?” (no). “Is it moist?” (yes). Best of all is the page of interesting facts about water, where you can read that the sky is blue because it is reflecting the oceans below it. Those of you who really want to know why the sky is blue (blue light gets scattered by our atmosphere more than the other wavelengths from the sun) can go to www.why-is-the-sky-blue.org (honestly).

· My favourite water (and Cameron Diaz’s too) is Penta H< ->2O. It’s only £1.50 for a 500ml bottle, and according to their marketing director David Cheatham, Penta is “the only molecularly restructured water on the market,” containing smaller clusters of water molecules than other bottled waters. “Since our cells hydrate only one molecule at a time, if you start with smaller cluster water you’re going to get both more and faster hydration to the cell.” But there’s more. Penta contains no minerals, because “research shows human beings don’t absorb minerals through water.” Despite the fact that your gut is full of it, presumably. Dr Wendy Doyle of the British Dietetic Association says: “I’m not aware that we have any problem with the absorption of water.” Professor Bob Williams, emeritus Royal Society research professor in inorganic biological chemistry, goes further: “It’s high grade waffle.”

· Now I know that I have an unhealthy obsession with MMR, but I have my reasons: this week the Economic and Social Research Council published a survey showing that more than half of the public still believe that medical science is evenly divided about the safety of the MMR vaccine. We’re not. Again (sighs wearily): MMR has reduced congenital rubella syndrome by 91%, and rubella terminations by 99%, and there is a study of 500,000 children showing it is not harmful. Enough.

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.

The onslaught begins…

April 10th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, celebs, scare stories, water | 7 Comments »

The onslaught begins…

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 10, 2003
The Guardian

As I rush towards the hideous reality of my 30th birthday, I am very excited to read about Longevity, a new kind of anti-ageing tablet that “delivers 2-AEP directly to outer cell walls to strengthen, seal and protect them”. The tablets have been awarded the National Council on Ageing’s Silver Fleece award for “the product that makes the most outrageous or exaggerated claims about human ageing”. Last year’s winner was “Clustered Water”, and their panel recently announced that “no effective anti-ageing intervention currently exists”. The marketers of Longevity have fought back, however, and their website has listed happy customers: John Wayne, Yul Brynner, Anthony Quinn, Princess Caroline of Monaco.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I can tell, at least three of those people are dead already.

It is also nice to see the Sars panic continuing, still with no actual information in most of the lengthy news reports. Any scientists looking for a new angle on where the virus came from might want to consult Cheryl, resident authority in the News of the World’s “Ask Cheryl” column. Writing on the link between relationships and ill-health, she points out that “years of arguing can weaken the immune system, causing viruses”.

If I went out Walking With Cavemen (BBC1, Thursdays) I think I’d be expecting to see some dangling penises, not to mention a bit of sex and the odd killing. Sadly, according to Auntie Beeb, things were a lot less decadent than I imagined _ actually this is too easy; I shall move on.

And finally, although it pains me to draw on anecdotal evidence for my sceptical stance on Feng Shui and the like, it is with almost sinister pleasure that I discover Anthea Turner, former darling of morning TV, paid through the nose to have her home Feng-Shuied last month. The very next weekend she was burgled and lost £40,000 of valuables. Proof, if proof were needed: I guess she should have left that wastebasket in the “wealth” corner of the room after all.

For God’s sake keep your bad science tips coming: I don’t know if I can bear trawling through this rubbish much longer. Although please, no more of your helpful “tips” about the Observer Magazine’s Barefoot Doctor. I know.

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