Saturday, 17 January 2009

Listen up flakes

Ben Goldacre, CFI London, Weird Science, Conway Hall 17th January 2009 3pm-4pm

[UPDATE: After the live blog, had time to clean up typos and links and added more links]


Science is seriously so much more interesting than anything you can make up with your woolly new age claptrap.

About Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre is a writer, broadcaster and medical doctor from the UK who is best known for his ‘Bad Science’ column in The Guardian newspaper, examining the claims of scaremongering journalists, quack health products, pseudoscientific cosmetics adverts, and evil multinational pharmaceutical corporations, as well as wider themes such as the medicalisation of everyday life and the psychology of irrational beliefs. He has a background in medicine and academia, trained in Oxford and London, works full time for the NHS, appears regularly on radio and TV, and has written for publications as diverse as Time Out, the British Medical Journal, New Statesman and The Lancet, as well as writing and presenting ‘The Rise Of The Lifestyle Nutritionists’ and ‘The Power of Placebo’ in 2008 on BBC Radio 4.


Bad Science
Wikipedia Entry
The Guardian Column


Finally we have Ben Goldacre to give the last talk of the day. "498 seriously pointless stupid weird lies that moron journalists ... tell to people". Lets see how many he gets through...

Science and Media

The head of the Science Museum surveyed the history of science reporting. 50 years it was most about futuristic engineering - floating trains and so. Today it is mostly about health. Why it this?

Communications Skills in Health

In the past medical students education in this was virtually non-existent. Today there is much taught today - underlying that doctors collaborate with patients. They need to engage and explain the evidence to make crucial decisions with their patients - informed consent. However the media undermines the patients' abilities to understand such evidence. How and why do they do this?

Scientific Wacky Stories

This leads people to think that scientists are wacky boffins doing trivial and irrelevant experiments such as:

Jessica Alba

The first example was "Jessica Alba has the Perfect Wiggle". Stupid flaky made up science. Media gurus know that science is the best way to get bullshit into the newspapers - in editorials rather than adverts. Unfortunately quite a few scientists have no morals and oblige in such drivel. Blame Veet for this story. When Ben investigated he found it was not published in any peer reviewed academic journal, that there was no team of Cambridge mathematicians,in the need one scientist contritely admitted that he lent his name to this. Indeed according to Veet's own data, Jessica Alba did not come first but seventh!

Why does this occur. Why are there no decent science journalists? Ben argues that they exist but are overwhelmed by humanities graduates who are their editors...

All Men have big willies

Another example was "All men have big willies" published in the Sun and covered by all nationals except the Guardian, the report being produced for... ahem... Bravo TV. Look them up if you are not familiar with this TV channel, their slogan being "Entertaining Men since 1985"... The report had nothing of substance, instead providing such statements such as that we will all end up with the same coloured tan skin. However evolution in multi-ethnic states such as Brazil shows this has not occurred and there is no evidence or real argument that it will. Why was this story published because it was written by a Dr Oliver Curry of the LSE Darwin Unit - the argument from (scientific in this case) authority.

Happiest Day of the Year

This was provided by "Dr" Cliff Arnold and sponsored by Walls Ice Cream... When Ben complained about his spurious formulas and equations in his Guardian column, Arnold's response was thanks, after your article, I have just received another cheque from Walls! Clearly Arnold is a highly ethical individual but enjoying great holidays.

Miracle Cures/ Hidden Scares

Red wine prevents breast cancer. No it does not, there is a positive correlation between alcohol intake (including red wine) and breast cancer. The journalist who wrote this article knew this since she had written the latter 3 months earlier! Her argument was looking at a minor statistical effect on a lab bench examining a few cells, nothing more, an extreme version a hasty generalization if ever there was one.

The Golden Age of Modern Medicine

In the 1930s, the golden age of medicine was launched with the discovery of antibiotics but also the discovery of many hidden factors that could effect our health. There have been numerous advances since that have had a remarkable beneficial benefits from pharmacology and surgical techniques since this time such as vaccines, intensive care, CT scanners and ...maybe... epidemiology?

Vaccine Scares

However a response to this has been fears of vaccines, such as being scared of Polio vaccines in Northern Nigeria - as a result Polio is now re-spreading around the world.The MMR/Andrew Wakefield autism scare was UK specific. The point is these scares are local yet if there were real evidence behind them then they would be worldwide.


Well we have one genuine serious hidden scare being the relation of smoking and lung cancer. This led to a highly successful public health intervention. But what else - excluding infection control, HIV/AIDS maybe- has been demonstrated? Asbestos is possibly the only other one. Nothing else.

After the Golden Age

By the 1970s the low lying fruit had all been taken. Since then the accrual of smaller risk factors have led to significant net benefit increases in mortality and so on. However there is nothing for medical journalists to report compared to the miracle cures and sinister hidden scares of the golden age. The real progress is not very news worthy. Still bad things still happen to people, but people have come to have unrealistic expectations of health improvements. This is partly due to health researchers, public health officials and so on having been optimistic that new discoveries relating lifestyle risk factors to health would continue. They were mistaken. Are hospitals the place to go for life style enhancements? All we need to do is eat well and not too much and exercise regularly. That is it.


A usual highly entertaining talk by Ben. He clearly had far more material to entertain us than time permitted.


All in a great series of lectures and well done to the CFI UK (or London?) and SPES for organising this. Now off to Skeptics in the Pub.


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Ben Goldacre and his column about Bad Science in The Guardian newspaper has been a coplete succes, because explain as clear as water the real consequences, ventages and desventages of a product that has been sold on the street. I personally love this column.