"ben goldacre"

Sped-up video makes real airplanes look like bad 1950s special effects

Real airplanes look like toys dangling from strings in this video from Heathrow.

Pharmaceutical companies deliberately mislead doctors into prescribing useless and even harmful meds

Writing in the Guardian, Ben Goldacre reveals the shocking truth about the drugs that doctors prescribe: thanks to aggressive manipulation from the pharmaceutical companies and passivity from regulators, doctors often don't know that the drugs were ineffective (or harmful) in a majority of their clinical trials. That's because pharma companies set up their trials so that they the right to terminate ones that look unpromising (or stop them early if they look promising and report on the result partway through as though it reflected the whole trial), and to simply suppress the results of negative trials.

As a result, doctors -- even doctors who do their homework and pay close attention to the published trials, examining their methodology carefully -- end up prescribing useless (or harmful) medicines. And according to Goldacre, this is true of all doctors in every country, because every country's regulators allow pharmaceutical companies to cynically manipulate research outcomes to increase their profits. As Goldacre points out, a 2010 Harvard/Toronto study showed that "85% of the industry-funded studies were positive, but only 50% of the government-funded trials were" -- and in another analysis, industry-funded trials of statins "were 20 times more likely to give results favouring the test drug."

What's more, when scientists blow the whistle on this life-threatening criminality, they're smeared and hounded by the pharma companies, as happened when Danish scientists published a study critical of industry-funded trials in the Journal of the American Medical Association. After the study was published, Lif, the Danish pharmaceutical industry association, called for professional misconduct investigations into the researchers, though they couldn't provide any evidence of the alleged misconduct. Read the rest

Test, Learn, Adapt: using randomized trials to improve government policy

"Test, Learn, Adapt" is a new white paper documenting the ultimate in evidence-based-policy: government policies that are improved through randomized trials. It's co-authored by Laura Haynes, Owain Service, Ben Goldacre and David Torgerson. Ben Goldacre elaborates:

We also address – and demolish – the spurious objections that people often raise against doing trials of policy (like: “surely it’s unfair to withold a new intervention from half the people in your trial?”).

Trials are widely used in medicine, in business, in international development, and even in web design. The barriers to using them in UK policy are more cultural than practical, and this document will, I hope, be a small part of a bigger battle to get better evidence into government.

More than that, the paper describes several fun examples of trials that have been conducted in UK government over just the past year, reporting both positive and negative findings. The tide is turning, and there are lots of smart people in the civil service.

Anyway, I think (I hope!) that the paper is readable and straightforward, like the Ladybird Book of Randomised Policy Trials, and I really hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

It’s free to download here.

Here’s a Cabinet Office paper I co-authored about Randomised Trials of Government Policies Read the rest

The food of champions

England's Football Association embodies the nation's most popular sport. To promote fitness and good health, it provides these splendid awards to schools that offer adequate soccer programs. I'd ask if you could spot the mistake, but I think this may be one of those "honor the error as a hidden intention" dealies—a tragic fact echoed by star player Rio Ferdinand's endorsement deal with a tobacco company. [via Ben Goldacre and Huw G] Read the rest

Dial M for Murdoch: exhaustive account of the UK tabloids' criminality and the resulting coverup

Tom Watson and Martin Hickman's Dial M for Murdoch is a timely, informative, infuriating insider account of the News International phone-hacking scandal that has occupied the news-cycle, off and on, for several years now (and shows no sign of slowing down). Watson, a veteran Member of Parliament -- and frequent target of the Murdoch press and its hackers and snoops -- was an early and consistent voice of alarm over the scale and illegality of the Murdoch tabloids' investigative methods. He's uniquely well-situated to tell this story. His co-writer, Martin Hickman, is a veteran investigative reporter who covered the story for the Independent. They make a good pair, and the narrative is relatively smoothly told and, at times, is very powerfully written.

The Murdoch papers -- and other UK tabloids and papers -- wield tremendous influence in the halls of British power. Dial M traces the intimate connections between the press and senior ministers, elected officials, and -- crucially -- the police in the UK. As the flagship Murdoch tabloid, News of the World attained the highest circulation of any English-language paper, and seems to have led the world in illegal investigation techniques as well. The early inklings of the scope of the company's criminality were systematically understated by the press, underrated by the police, pooh-poohed by officials (from every party), and buried.

But the story wouldn't die. There were just too many victims, a sympathetic poster-child for everyone -- dead soldiers and their families, terrorist bombing victims, royals, the families of murdered children, and so on. Read the rest

When the infographic craze finally goes too far

"Grand Old Party is data visualization project. It is also a set of butt plugs." (Thanks, Ben Goldacre. I think.) Read the rest

Prof who keeps announcing links between the Internet, childhood dementia and autism should publish theories in a scientific journal

Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of pharmacology at Oxford, made headlines this week by claiming that video games gave children dementia. She later partially retracted the statement, but it's the latest in a series of unsubstantiated claims about the effect of the Internet on children, including a claim linking autism to computers. She has compared her critics, including Ben Goldacre, to the epidemiologists who denied that smoking caused cancer.

Ben Goldacre has responded at length with a positive solution to the dispute. If Professor Greenfield has theories about the harms to children from the Internet and computers, she could publish them in a scientific journal.

And it is this second stage of review by your peers – after publication – that is so important in science. If there are flaws in your case, responses can be written, as letters, or even whole new papers. If there is merit in your work, then new ideas and research will be triggered. That is the real process of science.

If a scientist sidesteps their scientific peers, and chooses to take an apparently changeable, frightening, and technical scientific case directly to the public, then that is a deliberate decision, and one that can’t realistically go unnoticed. The lay public might find your case superficially appealing, but they may not be fully able to judge the merits of all your technical evidence.

I think these serious scientific concerns belong, at least once, in a clear scientific paper. I don’t see how this suggestion is inappropriate, or impudent, and in all seriousness, I can’t see an argument against it.

Read the rest

Widespread statistical error discovered in peer-reviewed neuroscience papers

"Erroneous analyses of interactions in neuroscience: a problem of significance," a paper in Nature Neuroscience by Sander Nieuwenhuis and co, points out an important and fatal statistical error common to many peer-reviewed neurology papers (as well as papers in related disciplines). Of the papers surveyed, the error occurred in more than half the papers where it could occur. Ben Goldacre explains the error:

Let’s say you’re working on some nerve cells, measuring the frequency with which they fire. When you drop a chemical on them, they seem to fire more slowly. You’ve got some normal mice, and some mutant mice. You want to see if their cells are differently affected by the chemical. So you measure the firing rate before and after applying the chemical, first in the mutant mice, then in the normal mice.

When you drop the chemical on the mutant mice nerve cells, their firing rate drops, by 30%, say. With the number of mice you have (in your imaginary experiment) this difference is statistically significant, which means it is unlikely to be due to chance. That’s a useful finding which you can maybe publish. When you drop the chemical on the normal mice nerve cells, there is a bit of a drop in firing rate, but not as much – let’s say the drop is 15% – and this smaller drop doesn’t reach statistical significance.

But here is the catch. You can say that there is a statistically significant effect for your chemical reducing the firing rate in the mutant cells.

Read the rest

Penelope Kenny's lovely hybrid animal illustrations

Fine artist Penelope Kenny "explores the relationship between humans and other animals, especially in connection to transhumanism, evolution, hybrids and biotechnology." Seen here, "The Tree of Modified Life" (2011, screenprint, 100 x 70 cm). Dig those freaky hybrids! Penelope Kenny (Thanks, Ben Goldacre!) Read the rest

Woman leaps from burning building in London

This amazing photo, showing a woman leaping from a burning building in London, is doing the rounds on Twitter. It's hard to verify, as the website of credited photo bureau Wenn is down, for what may be obvious reasons. Some are claiming the signs suggest that the image is actually from the U.S., not London, but those are almost certainly Croydon tramline signs.

Update: The photo is posted at full size in this Mirror story. Bad Science's Ben Goldacre also posted a tramline sign photo.

Previously: Huge Fire in London Chaos grips London Read the rest

Guess What's musical tribute to Yuri Gagarin

[video link]

Celebrating today's 50th anniversary of the first person in space, two tracks from the LP "Yuri Gagarin: 12 Modern Odes to History's Greatest Spaceman" by London-based duo Guess What. (Thanks, Ben Goldacre!) Read the rest

Misleading government stats and the innumerate media who repeat them

This week's Bad Science column from Ben Goldacre is an entertaining and frustrating look at the way that the government manipulates statistics with help from a tame and innumerate news media:

The Sun said: "Police have charged nearly 150 people after violent anarchists hijacked the anti-cuts demo and brought terror to London's streets." The Guardian republished a Press Association report, headlined: "Cuts protest violence: 149 people charged". And from the locals, for example, the Manchester Evening News carried "Boy, 17, from Manchester among 149 charged over violence after anti-cuts march".

In reality, a dozen of these charges related to violence, while 138 are people who were involved in an apparently peaceful occupation of Fortnum and Masons organised by UKUncut, who campaign on tax avoidance.

You will have your own view on whether people should be arrested and charged for standing in a shop as an act of protest. But describing these 150 people as "violent anarchists... who brought terror to London's streets" is not just misleading: it also makes the police look over 12 times more effective than they really were at charging people who perpetrated acts of violence.

Anarchy for the UK. Ish.

  Senior London cops lie to peaceful protestors, stage mass arrest ... Lies in London - Boing Boing Front-line report from Trafalgar Square paints a radically ... Read the rest

UK govt's "evidence based" health policies aren't based on evidence

Ben "Bad Science" Goldacre looks at the UK government's claims that its health cuts and changes are "evidence-based" and finds that the "evidence" consists of bad studies and cherry-picked results.

The government initially claimed that UK heart attack death rates were twice as bad as France. This was an overstatement: they are, but following recent interventions the gap is closing so rapidly that on current trends it will have disappeared entirely by 2012. In response, Burstow cites a 2008 paper by McKee and Nolte which he says "concluded that the UK had one of the worst rates of mortality amenable to healthcare among rich nations".

Burstow either misunderstands or misrepresents this very simple and brief paper. It is a study explicitly looking at time trends, not static figures, and it once again finds that comparing 2003 with 1998, the UK still had fairly high rates of avoidable mortality, but these were falling faster than in all but one of the other 18 industrialised countries they examined (meanwhile in the US, avoidable mortality improved at a disastrously slow pace, although they spent more money).

This is a paper showing the success of the NHS, and the fact that we are discussing such a massive improvement in avoidable mortality from Labour's first term in government is not my choosing: this is the paper that was cited by the Tory minister as evidence, bizarrely, of the NHS's recent failures.

Why is evidence so hard for politicians?

(Image: David Cameron's so-called policy on the NHS! Read the rest

Inside Sukey the anti-kettling mobile app

The Guardian's Patrick Kingsley has a great look at the story behind Sukey, a networked tool that helps protestors in London avoid police "kettles" (when police illegally corral protestors, passers-by and residents into a small area and detain them for hours without access to food, toilets, or medicine). Sukey was used for the first time on Saturday's protests against anti-cuts march in London, and for the first time in recent history, protestors avoided kettling (their counterparts in Manchester and Edinburgh -- who don't have Sukey yet -- weren't so lucky).

I keep trying to put myself in the cops' shoes and imagining what I would do to defeat Sukey. I think throwing a lot more cops at the kettle (to make it harder to escape the cordon as it tightens) would go some way toward this, and of course, they could try to shut down mobile connectivity and/or jam WiFi in central London, but I don't think that the public would be too happy about that. They could try to inject misinformation into the system (the recent revelations about large numbers of paid provocateurs in British protest movements certainly makes this plausible), which would probably spark some countermeasures from its creators.

Mostly, I suspect they're going to try to lean on the kids who make and use Sukey, and also try to get their ISP shut down. They may even find some trumped-up charge to use ("Reporting the position of a police officer" could be "obstructing justice," with enough imagination) against anyone caught reporting or accessing Sukey. Read the rest

Using a BS detector on popular science reporting

Ben Goldacre's latest "Bad Science" column for the Guardian is "How to read a paper," a great editorial explaining how to critically evaluate scientific claims that are printed in the newspaper:

Our next case takes more elaborate checking, since it involves an experiment and its interpretation. Scientists at Lancaster University, say the Daily Mail and the BBC, have devised an amazing piece of paedophile identification software. It reads your messages and decides if the person you're chatting to on the internet is another young person, or an adult who is pretending to be young.

This is a tricky problem to solve on a handheld device, or indeed anywhere. There is a press release on the Lancaster University website explaining that this device has been studied and found to work. I asked for details. The methods and results of this study are secret. No paper has been submitted for publication.

So actually there's no complicated interpretation problem here: nobody can know what these scientists measured, how they measured it, what the numbers were like, how closely the experiment mirrored a real world situation, or anything at all. When the Raelian cult said they'd cloned a baby, but we weren't allowed to see it, nobody took them seriously. Until someone's willing to tell me what they measured and how they measured it, they might as well be Raelians.

A useful, but admittedly more blunt heuristic might be: "If it's in the Daily Mail, it's probably not true."

How to read a paper

(Image: Mail Online screengrab)

  Bad Science comes to the USA: Ben Goldacre's tremendous woo ... Read the rest

Ben Goldacre: bad science kills

Here's Ben "Bad Science" Goldacre presenting on how non-evidence-based medicine (that is, woo), can actually, no fooling, kill you and thousands of your friends.

Ben's book, oddly enough titled Bad Science, is great as well, and I highly recommend it. There's a chapter he had to take out due to litigation by a guy named Mathias Rath, who says vitamins can cure AIDS. Yes, you read that correctly. Ben posted that chapter on his website, and it may be one of the most important things ever written in the area of critical thinking. Lack of proper treatment for AIDS kills hundreds of thousands of people in Africa alone. Hundreds of thousands.

When people like Ben win, lives are saved. The more people who know about him, the better. He's a true hero of skepticism.

Some bad science can make you laugh, and some kills

  Bad Science comes to the USA: Ben Goldacre's tremendous woo ... Woo-fighting scientist takes the funny high-road when libeled by ... Pseudoscience's "Awful Poo Lady" can't flush twitterings - Boing Boing The Doctor Will Sue You Now: the missing chapter of Ben Goldacre's ... Bad Science versus the piracy scare story Boing Boing Read the rest

2010 Gift Guide: BOOKS!

Welcome to the second half of the 2010 Boing Boing Gift Guide, where we pick out some of our favorite books from the last year (and beyond) to help you find inexpensive holiday gifts for friends and family. Can you guess who chose a Sarah Palin book?

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