A Quantitative Analysis Of The Frequency With Which One Company Is Promoted, And By Whom, In UK National Newspapers UPDATED 30/9/06

September 19th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, express, mail, statistics, telegraph, times | 48 Comments »

“A Quantitative Analysis Of The Frequency With Which One Company Is Promoted, And By Whom, In UK National Newspapers”

Updated 16th September 2006.

Dr Ben Goldacre (Corresponding Author)
Bad Science Research Institute,


Susan Clark is an alternative therapy columnist who recently made a cheeky attack on her critics. It was subsequently noted that she promotes one company, Victoria Health, with some regularity in her writing. There is a large pool of alternative therapy writers in the UK, who all regularly promote specific products and companies. No background data was available on how frequently this one company is promoted in newspapers, and therefore it was impossible to assess whether Clark’s promotion of them represented an anomaly. This brief pilot study was aimed at providing further background data.
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“Now Look What You’ve Made Me Do”

June 12th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, africa, bad science, dangers, herbal remedies, homeopathy, times | 27 Comments »

Poor old Susan Clark, previously a regular Bad Science target when she was writing “What’s The Alternative” in the Sunday Times, she is now in a position of total safety at The Observer.

Apparently in the past the poor thing has had such a hammering for her advice on malaria medication, that now her readers have to suffer. Actually it’s all my fault. No hang on. It’s your fault for encouraging Read the rest of this entry »

Resistance is worse than useless

February 11th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, africa, alternative medicine, bad science, dangers, herbal remedies, times | 63 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday February 11, 2006
The Guardian

Let me take you back to 2005, and one of several Bad Science stories about Susan Clark and her What’s The Alternative column in the Sunday Times. She’s no longer in that post – if you’re lucky we’ll have room to talk about her successor soon – but she stood out on account of her Read the rest of this entry »

Supplementary benefits

August 11th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, herbal remedies, scare stories, times | 16 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 11, 2005
The Guardian

· OK, it’s me and Susan Clarke from the Sunday Times, on the floor, mano a mano. This week someone is asking for Read the rest of this entry »

More Than Molecules

May 5th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, times, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Bad style

Talk about bad science

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 5, 2005
The Guardian

· In light of the ever present danger that I am tragically killed in a revenge attack, or indeed a sexual experiment that goes horribly wrong, I thought I ought to explain how to write a Bad Science column. First, decide who you’re going to bang on about. This week it had to be Susan Clark, of course. This means buying the Sunday Times. Turn to the Style section, that’s where the science is. Ignore the article about “oxygen plasma potion”. Just leave it. Also ignore the slightly hysterical article about Read the rest of this entry »

Beware alt.therapy

April 28th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, fish oil, nutritionists, times, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 28, 2005
The Guardian

· Sometimes I have elaborate and grotesque fantasies about alternative therapists, like the reliably foolish Susan Clark from the Sunday Times’ “What’s the alternative?” column. This week she was lecturing us on Omega-3 oils, in the pseudoscientific, jargon-laden, authoritarian rhetoric typical of the alternative therapies. They like to preserve the mystery, I suppose, though I’d count myself lucky to sneak half as much unexplained terminology onto one science page as the average alternative therapist gets away with – and I’d be using it correctly – but we’re getting carried away. Back to my fantasy.

· I imagine Susan Clark reading about herself once again in Bad Science, and try to picture her response. Does she need to check with a friend whether I’m right and she’s wrong? Do they have a secret giggle at her too? Do I spoil the surprise for her, if I point out what she gets wrong each time? Should I leave it to her to find out, like a kind of GCSE project? Does she ever believe she’s wrong? Or does she believe that we are two intellectual titans, who disagree on a complex issue of advanced science, where it is hard to be absolutely certain who is right and who is wrong?

· Look, it was nothing so big. She just said: “Fatty acids are composed of carbon molecules linked with hydrogen and oxygen atoms.” I mean, maybe it’s a slip that just happened to get past the scientifically literate Clark and all the Sunday Times’s scientifically literate subeditors, maybe she does know the difference between a molecule and an atom (Key Stage 4 science on the national curriculum, incidentally, I just checked, and you do it aged about 14). Maybe I should be ashamed of my pedantry. But as far as I’m concerned, if her sentence doesn’t leap out of the page at you, then you need a new engagement ring and some lead in your pencil; but maybe she’s never heard of graphite, or diamond, or fullerene (the cool, ball-shaped carbon molecule).

· No, hang on, she says the carbon molecules in fatty acids are “linked with hydrogen and oxygen atoms”. Perhaps this isn’t a slip of the tongue, or a misplaced word. Perhaps this is a systematic misunderstanding of the actual subject she’s banging on about like some expert. Maybe the sentence doesn’t even make sense if you swap “atom” for “molecule”; does she mean the carbon is joined together by oxygen and hydrogen? Why even try to write about it, if you don’t understand it? Oh, and we’re back to the first paragraph.

Mixing medicines

November 11th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, death, herbal remedies, times | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday November 11, 2004
The Guardian

· Ah, Susan Clark of the Sunday Times (What’s the Alternative?), how I love her. This time she’s giving advice about which natural substances are safe to take with warfarin. First, she bemoans the dearth of research on the subject. Then she ignores the useful stuff in what we do know. “As a simple guideline, patients who are taking warfarin should avoid any natural remedies that have an action on the cardiovascular system.” I have no idea where that idea came from: but warfarin is famous for being interfered with by other drugs. St John’s Wort, for example, is a very popular drug – herb, collection of drugs in a plant, whatever – that reduces the plasma concentration of warfarin, along with phenytoin and rifampicin: that’s not because they’re active on the cardiovascular system, that’s probably because they interfere with liver enzymes, which means it makes them work harder. Those enzymes also break down warfarin, so if they’re working harder, they break down the warfarin more too, so there’s less of it around in your blood, and you’re more likely to have another nasty clot and die. Likewise, ginseng reduces the plasma levels of warfarin, so they shouldn’t be mixed either. And lots of others.

· So: stand by for the kind of nerdy, and usefully boring science story you’ll see in a paper when I am prime minister of the world government. In a recent study, 2,600 patients on warfarin were sent a questionnaire on what alternative therapies they took: 1,360 responded (believe me, that’s a high response rate) and a whole 19.2% of those responders were, it turned out, taking one or more complementary therapies. Ninety-two per cent of them hadn’t thought to mention this to their doctor. Only 28.3% of all respondents had even thought that herbal medicines could interfere with prescription drugs. Because hardly anybody’s telling them. And, the patients who were taking the complementary therapies – the ones you’d hope would be aware of the risks – were even less likely to think they might interfere with prescription drugs (at a statistical significance of P<0.001, which means there’s a one in 1,000 possibility of that finding occurring by chance).

· Now, doctors have a responsibility to ask about alternative therapies. Patients have a responsibility to themselves to volunteer the information. And the PR arm of the alternative therapy industry, the ones who write articles in national newspapers, have a responsibility to know their onions, and share their knowledge.

It’s all in the title

September 16th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, herbal remedies, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, times | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 16, 2004
The Guardian

· It’s hard to know who to trust these days, what with pseudoscientists pretending to have all kinds of qualifications and quoting authorities all over the shop. Susan Clark’s consistently entertaining “What’s The Alternative?” column in the Sunday Times recommends artemisinin this week, as an alternative herbal malaria prophylaxis for someone travelling to Asia. “The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria is funding the shift to artemisinin-based combination therapies in 26 countries,” she says. Sounds good. I’ll do you a favour, and spare you the rant about how chloroquine costs 20 cents per treatment while fashionable ideas like artemisinin cost $2.40, and stick to more important facts. Like: artemisinin is a treatment for malaria, not a preventive measure, because its half-life is too short, and the excellent and sensible Global Fund does not recommend it as a prophylaxis, nor does it endorse anything, as it is just a funding body. Perhaps Susan Clark can’t tell the difference. Here’s hoping her readers are a bit more cautious.

· So who do you trust? What about a “consultant podiatric surgeon”? Sounds a bit like “consultant orthopaedic surgeon”, doesn’t it? Or “consultant vascular surgeon”? Except a consultant podiatric surgeon is just a chiropodist who has decided to charge a bit more. Nice move, but it’s hard to prove that the public have been misled here. Sorry, I mean to say they have “misunderstood” the innocent phonetic coincidence between “consultant orthopaedic surgeon” and “consultant podiatric surgeon”. So the British Orthopaedic Trainees Association has surveyed 262 members of the public, and what do you know: 95% thought that consultant podiatric surgeons had qualified as doctors, while only 9.5% thought chiropodists were doctors. Ker-ching. Mind you, 97.3% thought consultant orthopaedic surgeons had been to medical school, and even a few junior doctors got the answers wrong. In a world full of “Dr Gillian McKeith PhDs”, until the government starts protecting professional titles, and regulating all the people who have popped up to make money out of our obsession with health, I can’t start to think about the financial gain for these wily characters because (holds head sanctimoniously aloft), there are actually rather serious issues about what goes through the heads of people who think they’re giving informed consent to treatment by self-appointed professionals.