Prohibition Vs the Gold Standard

August 5th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, drurrrgs | 68 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday August 5, 2006
The Guardian

Certain areas of human conduct lend themselves so readily to bad science that you have to wonder if there is a pattern emerging. Last week the parliamentary science and technology committee looked into Read the rest of this entry »

Magnetic needling

August 25th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 5 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 25, 2005
The Guardian

· “Magnetic bandages can help wounds heal faster,” says the Daily Mail, which is certainly a headline that invites close reading. “A magnetic leg wrap has been Read the rest of this entry »

Straight jabs

January 13th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent, magnets, mail, MMR | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 13, 2005
The Guardian

People sometimes say to me, “I enjoy Bad Science, but often the jokes go right over my head, which makes me worry that I must be ignorant.” To which I always reply: “Good.” Over to reader Anne Pickard: “Unable to get a copy of our Saturday Guardian, my husband bought the Independent, which included a feature on ‘The 50 best spa treatments’. You may be interested to learn that in seventh place comes “Magnetic Massage”, where your torso “is shrouded in an infrared-heated blanket that warms up your kidneys to help speed up the detoxification process in your internal organs”. Brilliant. Is there anything else I can do to warm my kidneys up? “Do something unexpectedly kind for one person every day,” says the careers development section of, “this tends to warm your kidneys.”

Meanwhile, it’s good to see some of you have been keeping an eye on the Daily Mail, particularly the story of a new “triple jab” as the paper called it. The vaccination they are talking about is the conjugate pneumococcal vaccine that the Joint Committee on Immunisation and Vaccination recommended at its last meeting. Most people had expected the Mail to get its knickers in a twist, but where did it pull the idea of a triple vaccine from? The pneumococcal vaccine currently licensed in the UK (given to children at high risk of complications from pneumococcal infection) is a 7-valent conjugate vaccine which protects against seven of the most common serotypes of pneumococcus. Shut up. Nobody complains about the Books section being too “Booky”. So anyway, it’s not a “triple” vaccine, that great Daily Mail bogeyman, because it only confers protection against one organism (Streptococcus pneumoniae), just like the Hib vaccine confers immunity to Haemophilius influenzae type B, and the conjugate Men C vaccine protects against Neisseria meningitidis.

Presumably, and this is the best explanation I can offer, the Mail journalist took the Department of Health’s suggestion that the vaccine would protect children against bacterial meningitis, pneumonia and septicaemia, and assumed this meant three separate diseases, like MMR protects against measles, mumps and rubella. But bacterial meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia are three – potentially fatal – outcomes of a pneumococcal infection. As our spotter says: “It’s a good job they hadn’t picked up on the 7-valent bit. They would have got even more excited about a septuple vaccine.”

Chips with everything

December 2nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, nutritionists, weight loss | 4 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday December 2, 2004
The Guardian

· I love Christmas. All those festive news stories planted by industry about how chocolate and booze are good for you, and then the excitement of a season of new year bad science detox stories to look forward to. “According to the British Nutrition Foundation, most adults tend to put on at least 5-7Ib over the four-week Christmas period.” So says the PR department of Phase 2, a white kidney bean extract that’s “the low-carb diet in a pill”. It’s a great idea: an amylase inhibitor that stops your body breaking down carbohydrates, so you can’t absorb them and you presumably poo them out. Whole chips perhaps.

· It’s not a particularly new idea. In fact, in 1983, Professor John Garrow and some colleagues read about a similar product, and came up with an ingenious way of testing it. We eat plants and then break down their carbohydrates, release their energy for our own dubious purposes and breathe out carbon dioxide. There are two isotopes of carbon: carbon-13 and carbon-12. Some plants have a higher amount of carbon-13 in their sugars than others, so if you eat the carbohydrates from them, you soon breathe out carbon dioxide that has more carbon-13 than usual. To measure carbon-13 against carbon-12 you need a mass spectrometer: the joy of being a scientist is that you might have a friend who has one lying around on the day you feel like causing some trouble. They gave five obese women starch meals containing lots of carbon-13, along with a placebo tablet, or Starchex, the amylase inhibitor tablet of the day. The result? Placebo or amylase inhibitor, it made no difference, they still breathed out the same amount of carbon-13; they also had the same blood sugar changes and insulin levels after their meals. As far as you can tell, the pill made no difference to starch absorption.

· But wait: Phase 2 boasts “eight separate clinical trials”. I could find one properly published, in the Alternative Medicine Review. The Phase 2 group lost 3.79lb, and the placebo group lost 1.65lb, on average: but the difference was only statistically significant at p=0.35. That’s not even worth printing, because it means (and bear with me professional statisticians, I only have 400 words to make my point here) that there was a one in three chance that the finding was completely by chance. One in 20 is the traditional cut-off for people to take a finding seriously. And regardless of statistical significance, I leave it to you to decide if a difference of 2lb has any practical significance. Keep eating those chips.

Rusty results

September 2nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, detox, very basic science, water | 14 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 2, 2004
The Guardian

· Time for a Johnny Ball kitchen science experiment, I think. I could have told you from the start that “Aqua Detox” was a scam, and a popular one at that. Why? Because it is claimed to extract “toxins” from your body through the “2,000 pores in your feet” discovered by those ancient Chinese scientists. And because it’s so charmingly theatrical: you put your feet in a water bath, containing “natural organic salts”, with an electrical current that “resonates” with your “bio-energetic field” passing across it, and the water goes first tea-coloured, and then properly brown, with a sludge on top. You think I’m making this up, but it’s been in the Daily Telegraph, and innumerable other places. So it must be true. And this brown, the Aqua Detox people proudly tell you, is from the toxins coming out of your body.

· Thinking back to GCSE chemistry, it seemed likely to me that it was rust rather than toxins, since they have, after all, got a pair of metal electrodes in a salt water bath with a current passing across them. And so we set up, on a kitchen table, a bowl containing salt and water, with two metal nails attached to a car battery. And what do you know: our water goes brown too, with a nice sludge on top. Could this be the same brown as the Aqua Detox water?

· Bravely I sent along my friend Dr Mark Atkins to have himself Aqua Detoxed. He took water samples from the bowl, which we sent off to the Medical Toxicology Unit at New Cross, south-east London. You can only imagine our excitement, especially as they charged us £200 for the analysis. And so – triumphant music – the water taken out before they switched their Aqua Detox machine on contained only 0.54mg per litre of iron (probably from the metal spoon); but afterwards it contained … 23.6mg/l. Our water, from our kitchen table setup, contained 97mg/l (and it was a bit browner).

· But did it extract toxins? “Toxin” is classic pseudoscience terminology. Essentially, the Aqua Detox people are offering dialysis, through your feet. Urea and creatinine are probably the smallest molecules – call them “toxins” if you like – that your body gets rid of, in places like urine and sweat: if “toxins” were going to come out, anywhere, you’d expect those to come out, too. There was no urea or creatinine in the water before the Aqua Detox, and there was none in the water afterwards. Which means, I believe, that we win.

Prion and on and on

July 22nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, herbal remedies, scare stories, times, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 22, 2004
The Guardian

· Bad Science business as usual in the British “news” media. Several of you were delighted to spot the Times worrying us about BSE all over again, with a picture of what caused it: not a prion, mysteriously, but a picture of a nice big bacterium. And It was labelled as the “BSE virus”, which will come as news to the people who spend their time worrying about what to do with the teeny prion molecules on surgical implements. For future reference, the bacteria are the big roundish things with lots of other stuff going on inside them, and the prions are the bendy wee molecules.

· Perry Groves has been reading the Independent on Sunday. “It appears to have taken the viewpoint that all nanoscience is dangerous,” she writes. “It then blows any credibility it may have had for this position with the sentence ‘Nanotechnology, which is set to revolutionise industry and everyday life, deals with particles so small the laws of physics no longer apply.'” So that’s very small, then.

· The naive quest to find some intellectual consistency in the world of alternative therapies continues unabated. Reader Guy Herbert always thought the point of traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine (mysteriously conflated by western magpies) was that old was good, and ideas changing in the light of new evidence was a sinister modern invention. Until he read the London Evening Standard: “Cupping is a healing technique in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine that involves the placing of glass jars over acupuncture points. This creates a vacuum that increases blood circulation and detoxification.” “So,” he writes, with glorious pedantry, “at least now they accept Harvey’s blood circulation theory. But surely something as modern as the 17th century can’t be any good?”

· And the ever vigilant Andy Mabbett sends us news that the Birmingham Evening Mail has exclusive rights on a major breakthrough in microbiology, with a story about a former lorry driver who has “invented a wonder cream which could spell the end of hospital superbugs”. Over to our truck driving genius: “We found it killed everything. It was the first potion that killed every known bacteria.” That’s every known bacteria. “Managing infection outbreaks costs the NHS over £1bn annually,” said Mr Watts, his main investor and the chairman of a recruitment agency. No wonder the Evening Mail think he’s “set to make a fortune”.