Very quick one here

Just to let you know that my wife Holly has started her own blog, Helium Flash, which will probably be good even though she links to Ben Goldacre in the sidebar…
Sorry for my own lack of posting – between trying to fix Holly’s laptop, being ill, working, leafletting for a council by-election, and rewriting a paper on Human Adaptive Mechatronics, I’ve been busy this week. Proper post tonight.

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8 Responses to Very quick one here

  1. Holly says:

    Oh, when are you going to shut up about Ben Goldacre? Just because you don’t agree with somebody entirely doesn’t mean they’re not doing good work too.

    Failing to fix Holly’s laptop, you mean…

  2. Andrew Hickey says:

    I actually think Goldacre does a *hell* of a lot of damage… see this for example. By attacking criticisms from people like Cliff Richard and Carole Caplin who couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag, he manages to give the impression that *all* criticisms of that paper were wrong. Which they most definitely were not…

  3. Zom says:

    I *love* Ben Goldacre. Yes he’s didactic, yes that means he sometimes swipes a little too wildly, and yes there are unintended consequences, but by God we need people like him. Before I started reading his column I assumed that science journalism was broadly okay – good even – I thought I could trust what I read. How fucking wrong I was.

    Also, as someone brought up around evangelical nutritionists and hardcore advocates of alternative therapies (I’ve known Patrick Holford since I was a babe in arms, my god parents run Higher Nature) I’ve experienced more than my fair share of New Age credulity and claptrap. I know how precious, irrational, immune to actual evidence and defensive these communities can be and it drives me up the wall. Sometimes it makes communicating with people I love and want to respect pretty much impossible – which is a really shitty thing. You know, I just can’t handle conversations with intelligent adults who attempt to get me to buy into the idea that before the Aids epidemic hit the news people used to survive the disease. That kind of thinking is beyond pernicious.

    Sorry, started ranting… where was I? Oh yes, my point being that Ben Goldacre is almost certainly someone you could engage in a thoughtful conversation, someone who would listen to claims based on solid evidence, who would be willing to take on board rational argument – most of his opposition, however? Not so much, at least in my experience.

    Christ, my stepmother (a woman who I love dearly) was slagging him off the other week, so I asked her if she’d ever actually read his column, turned out that no, no she hadn’t. Ever. But he was “nasty” about homeopathy and Patrick, so…

  4. We do need someone *like* Goldacre – and yes, science reporting is shoddy as hell – but what we unfortunately don’t need is Goldacre himself. A *lot* of the time he takes some especially dodgy individual and then generalises that one person to cover all of ‘alternative medicine’.
    Alternative medicine covers a wide spectrum of different areas, from homeopathy (complete drivel) through to orthomolecular medicine (quite a strong body of scientific evidence behind it) with things like chiropracty and so on somewhere in the middle (some limited evidence that they might work, but not enough that I’ve seen to form an opinion).
    (Unfortunately, the people you link to, while presumably well-intentioned, and selling *some* effective products, are also selling a lot of junk – and at least one of the things on their front page, the ‘three of your five a day’ thing, may well even be illegal. The ‘five-a-day’ rules, stupid as they are, include that drinks only count as one portion, no matter how much you drink, because the process of juicing increases the glucose level enormously…)

    But the problem is, Goldacre acts as if *all* the people promoting *any* alternative medicine are like that, even when they’re clearly not. For example, he links today in his sidebar to , saying that it shows vitamin C does not prevent prostate cancer. Except that isn’t true. The paper shows that *500mg* of vitamin C taken daily, or 400IU of synthetic alpha-tocopherol (one of several different molecules that get lumped together as ‘vitamin E’) won’t prevent cancer. No-one has ever claimed it will. On the other hand proponents of using vitamin C to prevent cancer suggest using between 3 and 20 *grams* per day, depending on age and health (people in their 50s, as in the linked study, probably need toward the higher end) . The study is roughly equivalent to saying that there’s conclusive proof that the birth-control pill affects pregnancy, because taking half a pill once a fortnight does nothing.

    The Cochrane review he defends in the link above against Cliff Richard has had a lot of *very* serious flaws in it pointed out by actual scientists whose area of expertise it is. See for example (you may just recognise one of the names there… the response from the authors doesn’t really answer the objections, and we have published more on it later – see if you can be bothered S.‭ ‬Hickey H.‭ ‬Roberts A.‭ ‬Hickey Were sufficient antioxidants employed in this study‭? ‬BMJ,‭ ‬Rapid Responses,‭ ‬Feb‭ ‬26,‭ ‬2008.‭ and two papers which I’m not sure if they’ve actually been accepted for publication yet – “‭ ‬Is the practice of meta-analysis scientifically valid‭?” and “Analysis of the Cameron/Pauling cancer data”

    I’ve done quite a bit of actual research into some of the things Goldacre writes about (as in, published academic papers in journals on the subjects) and a lot of the time he is just *wrong* on the actual science, or making claims that are every bit as over-the-top as the people he attacks, just in the other direction.

    I would go on, but I’m working on some papers ;)

  5. Zom says:

    But I’m of the opinion that you could go and have a proper debate with Goldacre. I dare you to try. He writes in a public forum, after all. I suspect he would actually invite quality debate, which, again, is more than you could say for most of his opponents.

    I doubt Higher Nature sells anything that’s illegal – they certainly wouldn’t do so intentionally, and given that they’re a reasonably high profile company, with many, many years of experience of navigating the legal minefield that is the magical world of nutritional supplements, I doubt they’ve simply slipped up.

    Regardless of whether they could be locked up for selling some products what constantly baffles me is the ethical disconnect that a willingness to flog people what amounts to fraudulent tat throws into light. The people behind the company are good, kind human beings, but somehow they’re happy to market, I dunno… “wellness” water filters.

  6. Oh, I wasn’t accusing them of *deliberately* doing anything wrong – if nothing else I make it a rule never to impute any bad motive to anyone without a great deal of evidence. Just agreeing with you that they don’t seem to be partricularly careful about whether what they’re selling actually works or not…
    I’m not particularly interested in debating Goldacre – at least at the moment – I’m not any good at that kind of debate. I’ll just keep doing actual science…

  7. Zom says:


    My debating point is born of the fact that we can do more than simply condemn or praise these days – we can help improve. Web 2.0, innit.

    The thing is, I’m of the opinion that Goldacre’s heart is in the right place. Whether he’s too dismissive or sometimes is flatout wrong isn’t the what interests me – people fail, I can live with that – what interests and excites me is that he’s opening up important areas of debate

  8. Zom says:

    Whether he’s too dismissive or sometimes is flatout wrong isn’t the what interests me

    Whether he’s right or wrong is obviously important, mind you!

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