Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Skeptics: Ben Goldacre


Dr Ben Goldacre

A typical skeptic.

Dr Ben  Goldacre (admittedly looking quite cute here)

Father and son skeptics (they were rather sweet actually).

More skeptics.

The evening didn't start well. My friend bought me a glass of red wine. It was placed on the bar. It had a frothy top, thick sediment and was cloudy.
"I'm not drinking that" I said to the barman.
"That's the house red. It'll settle." he said airily.
"I'm not drinking that" I repeated.
Bristling slightly, the barman said: "It's the house red. I asked you if you wanted the house red."
"No you didn't" I replied "You asked me if I wanted large or small. I said large."
Caught out, the barman poured out a fresh glass from a new bottle. The house red was probably from a plastic barrel.

We were at "Skeptics in the pub" a monthly talk which critically examines anything 'New Age'. The place was packed and I unfavourably compared the poor seating and sound to the comfortable private room where The Moot with No Name takes place. 
The speaker was Dr Ben Goldacre, an Oxford graduate(1) who has written a column for The Guardian. Promoting his new book, Bad Science, he can be described as pale with small blue eyes and frizzy hair. His talk was ill prepared and he obviously decided to wing it. Dr Goldacre was under the mistaken impression that he is a stand-up comedian, but this was partly due to the craven reaction of the audience who chortled uproariously to every unwitty remark. 
Skeptics are, I must say, a rather unprepossessing bunch physically, consisting mostly of middle-aged men with beards. 
Goldacre's main point seemed to be that science as a subject is under-represented in the media which is fair enough. Unfortunately he also felt the necessity to pick on easy targets, say nasty sexist things and generally be arrogant and unpleasant. He slagged off Dr Gillian McKeith, Patrick Holford, homeopathy, healers, humanities graduates, the idea that women might have sexual dysfunctions
The latter particularly annoyed me; he believes that female sexual dysfunction is a myth. It's more likely down to the fact that the woman sufferer is no longer "a vixenie; sexy and attractive. Come again? So women cannot orgasm because they don't fancy themselves? Is that what he was saying? Surely if this argument is to hold any water it's more likely to be the fact that their men are no longer sexy and attractive.
He was unpleasantly bitchy about Dr Gillian McKeith saying that she lived in a "witchy" mansion in Hampstead (a bit of envy there methinks). Now it's true that she doesn't have a proper Phd, her science may be dodgy and she is obsessed with people's poo. But does Dr Goldacre believe that encouraging people to eat more vegetables is a bad thing? That having a quick look in the toilet bowl after you go is not a good idea? The message she delivers is a good one ultimately.
Ben Goldacre compares the fuss about 'big pharma' (the commercialism of the legal drugs industry) with 'big quacka' (the commercialism of selling unnecessary health supplements).
Judging from Ben Goldacre's unhealthy pallor perhaps he doesn't eat many vegetables, nuts and seeds. I do agree that Patrick Holford (of Optimum Nutrition) et al's emphasis on taking dietary supplements and vitamins is ridiculous. If you have a balanced nutritious diet, you shouldn't need vitamins. 
However I have read Patrick Holford's books on Optimum Nutrition and in many ways they make alot of sense. Equally Linus Pauling's research (another of Goldacre's victims) of Vitamin C is of interest. 
As for homeopathy,  Lynne McTaggart of What the Doctors don't tell you likens homeopathy to quantum physics in her book The Field. She is also cautious about vaccinations. Ben Goldacre denounced the MMR scare as the biggest scam of the last 100 years. 
I confronted Ben Goldacre in the interval. To be honest I was fuming. He said that he used to live in a council flat in Kentish Town with his girlfriend who had just left him. He said that most people in Kentish Town were white and working class and had a short life expectancy. I lived in Kentish Town for 15 years. Most of the houses there are worth well over a million pounds. Kentish Town is full of middle class professionals with the odd council estate. 
I said to him bitchily: "No wonder your girlfriend left you, you are so horribly sexist. Plus, just because you lived in a council flat doesn't mean that everybody does."
I also asked if he had children which of course he didn't. Because that would change everything. He might actually become a fully rounded human being. 
It's amazing that when you have a child with a health problem and G.P's (who are not terribly bright or imaginative for the most part) keep giving you the same allopathic drugs which don't work, you find yourself turning to homeopathy. Which does work. Especially on children and animals. I don't know how, but it does.
Also when I came back from Malawi with a tropical disease, no one at Guys hospital could diagnose it. My homeopath diagnosed it within seconds as Bilharzia. Which was eventually confirmed, weeks later, by tests. My homeopath, the brilliant and sensible Carole Ingram, will tell me when I need normal allopathic medecine.(2) 
Then, losing it slightly, I told him he was a wanker and that all of his audience were idiots with beards.
Just then a voice piped up:" You mean us?".
I turned around and saw a row of bearded men of varying heights (like something out of Snow White and the 7 dwarves) lining up to get a signed copy of Ben's book. 
Feeling angry and frustrated, I stole a copy of his book.
Next it was the Q & A session. One woman put her hand up: "Ben, you don't like humanities students. But we aren't all idiots."
Ben Goldacre replied: "Humanities students, sorry let me rephrase that, fuckwit humanities students....(pause for massive laugh, oh what a wag!) are fine unless they start writing about scientific or medical subjects which they know absolutely nothing about."
Afterwards I went up to him and again asked why were you so rude to that woman. He said that she was a friend of his and that she didn't mind. He then turned his back on me. I confessed guiltily to a friend that I had stolen the book. The friend said "Hmm, bad karma"
I immediately returned it to Ben Goldacre. After all, I wouldn't want that would I?

(1) What is it about Oxbridge types? They really do think they are God's gift don't they? Just because they are good at sums or whatever. 

(2) Ben Goldacre also attacked homeopaths for giving homeopathic remedies as opposed to anti-malarial drugs, saying that they put people's lives at risk. The homeopaths I have seen have all been cautious about homeopathic remedies for this purpose. However anti-malarials can often mask symptoms, delaying diagnosis. I know one woman that has had long term health problems from taking Larium (similar to Gulf war syndrome). I never took anti-malarials; chloroquine interferes with my eyesight. I packed a supply of chloroquine in case of infection (the treatment they give you anyway). Old Africa hands don't take anti-malarials either, they recommend covering up, using nets, prevention rather than cure.

19 comments:

  1. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" lol!!! You certainly livened up proceedings there, ML. Most of them were asking for it actually! It was good we met that other bloke later on with a more open mind. It just goes to show that SitP is not only for Skeppers.

    (Sorry I had to leave before the end, but I had to get up at 5AM this morning! Shit, I'm knackered now!)

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  2. But I should point out that not all Skeptics are like that. I've met many nice people at SitP, people I respect.

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  3. glad to see you leave your mind open,
    to let the good ideas in and the bad ideas out .
    skepticism is good. closed minded academia anemia, kinda pointless.
    I to tire of the herd mentality "if I didn't learn it in school it must not be true" .
    Copernicus anyone?

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  4. Corbin, I think that Goldacre may be handicapped by knowing TOO much, not too little! If you learn too intensively and exclusively on a particular subject, in his case medicine, then you don't have the time or mental space to approach the subject as an outsider, with the insights that a fresh pair or eyes who've learnt something of different subjects can bring. It was only when physics and navigation got together that the force of gravity made sense. This was because navigators knew that the Earth was a sphere from their obserevations of the night's sky at sea, but not how a spherical Earth could work with no force to keep everything on the ground! But add the physical theory of gravity and the model makes sense.

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  5. I think thats pretty harsh. You say hes a sexist and then make a number of disparaging remarks about his appearance, and your fellow audience members.

    if you actually read what he says about sexual dysfunction hes not denying it exists, rather that the pharma industry has re-conceptualised it in a way to market drug based cures - and actually its a bit more complicated that that.

    similarly with Holford and McKeith he's perfectly happy to acknowledge the message of sensible diet and only takes issue with the bullshit science and fake scientific authority they use to market themselves with. read the relevant articles - its easy go to his blog and do a search.

    he also acknowledges homeopathy works, but disputes both the mode of action and the way they try to claim scientific authority without submitting themselves to scrutiny. try reading the chapter in the book you stole.

    I could go on, but it sounds like you had made your mind up before hand, and listened about as much as you've bothered to read. Bit of a shame really.

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  6. Thanks for your comment. I can honestly say I knew nothing about Ben Goldacre, had never heard of him before I attended the event. He may have very good points which may have been better expressed in the book. (As you know I returned it.) But his efforts to be amusing, unsuccessful in my opinion, meant that the valid concerns he had, ended up overlooked. In fact perhaps you had to be a fan already to enjoy his talk.
    You do have a point however about my remarks regarding the audience. Trouble is, when there is an atmosphere of scoring easy points it can be catching!
    The only time he impressed me was when he spoke movingly about the South African presidents attitude to HIV.

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  7. Steve, Goldacre has every right to his mission and his work, although it lacks scope, contains a lot of technical truth. The problem was that he made some jokes that seemed designed to antagonize and upset some people who's only sin is being a particular gender and age. If most of his audience find this funny, then fine. We're all entitled to our likes and dislikes. But others who are upset by his remarks also have the right to express their feeling to him. I imagine ML is not the first person who's ever done so. In fact I assumed Goldacre was fairly used to being acosted in this manner!

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  8. another storming post from our correspondent in the field ms ml... by the way a friend of mine took Larium as she was travelling far a field ... and she completely collapsed... had to be flown back to the UK under medical supervision and her health has never recovered... she won't take as much as an aspirin nowadays (she is a trained nurse incidentally) see you soon
    xcx

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  9. Caroline, I had hayfever as a kid and was put on steroids. But I could only take them for a week. When I came off them my mum tried me on local honeycomb and it did the trick! I'm sure it's been "shown to be ineffective in a scientific trial", but trust your own judgement! It worked for me, and as long as it kept working I kept using it!

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  10. Yes, I get hayfever now. I keep meaning to buy some local honey, from Regents Park, from a beekeeper who lives near me.
    A spoonful a day is supposed to help. It's the same principle as vaccinations or homeopathy. A diluted dose of what ails you, immunises you.

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  11. Hmm, sounds like Goldacre was an arrogant prat. I've always enjoyed his Guardian column and I'm definitely on board with his Gillian McKeith hatred - not because I think her supposed aim of wanting people to eat more healthily is evil, but because (as Goldacre sets out here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/feb/12/advertising.food) she sucks vulnerable people into believing her advice is based on scientifically proven facts, which it often is not. (Although watch out - he makes another sweepingly general comment about Kentish Town in that article!)

    And she does this in a deliberately dishonest way by pretending to have qualifications and expertise that she doesn't actually have, so people will find her more credible. Presumably so people will buy her books, and companies will employ her to host TV shows and endorse their products. It would be different if she'd portrayed herself as Mother Gillian using back to basics recipes, and made it clear when she was stating an opinion or unproven fact - rather than pretending to be a highly-qualified, trustworthy expert in all matters nutritional. After reading that article I felt sorry for all those poor people she humiliates on television who didn't know what a fraud she is.

    Too bad Goldacre had to undermine his message by alienating half the audience. He obviously makes enough money preaching to the converted, while they all sit there and snigger disdainfully at people with "arts" backgrounds.

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  12. Sorry that URL was wrong: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/feb/12/advertising.food should do a bit better!

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  13. As, I hope, one of who Ben calls one of "many nice people at SitP, people I respect", I would like to chip in.

    (BTW, good to see you there, Ben - sorry the crush meant we could't chat more.)

    From my subjective point of view, Ben Goldacre did not come across as arrogant and nor were half the audience alienated.

    Instead, he was self-deprecating and ironic. He put himself down more than anyone. Even his comment about humanities graduates was (in my view) to make himself sound bad. And I am an arts graduate and an ex-humanities teacher. (And so, unlike him, I would NEVER use the verb "to narrative". (Oh dear, Ben Goldacre, stick to sciences.)

    He even called me and my current profession (law) scumbags (a lot worse than witchy, I think, but I've heard at lot worse). It was possibly the single harshest term of abuse he used. But, in the context it was very funny. The other lawyers thought so too.

    You see, context is everything.

    I only post this as a corrective to the above. I was an eye-witness to the same event and my impressions are different to those which Lauren took from the other posts.

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  14. Thanks for your input Jack.

    ATB
    Ms Marmite Lover

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  15. Hi Jack. Of course you're one of those people. It was good to see you there too. They certainly good have done with a bit more room that night. Maybe we should book the Albert Hall for Goldacre's next lecture.

    Lauren, I remember Gillian McKeith well on TV. She did sound a bit like a hospital waiting room poster! "You're going to DIE if you do that!" etc. She also gained her medical qualifications by filling in a form for her cat! But, as is often the case, it's the mediocre who rise to the top of the pole and get the fame and fortune. There are less-renowned people out there who are a lot more impressive.

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  16. "Corbin, I think that Goldacre may be handicapped by knowing TOO much, not too little!"

    That's a fairly dumb thing to say. How can knowing too much be a thing?

    "It was only when physics and navigation got together that the force of gravity made sense. This was because navigators knew that the Earth was a sphere from their obserevations of the night's sky at sea, but not how a spherical Earth could work with no force to keep everything on the ground! But add the physical theory of gravity and the model makes sense."

    You have no understanding of science whatsoever. People have ALWAYS known that gravity exists, that's blatantly obvious, just try jumping, but it took people like Newton and Einstein to describe how it works. The fact that the Earth is a sphere (not discovered by navigators, but by, guess what, scientists) was perfectly understandable, because people knew gravity existed. Newton didn't just go "Oh by the way, no-one realised, but gravity exists", he came up with a formula for how gravity works (inverse square law etc), and also that it was the same force that held the moon in the sky. Oh and even if your absurd history of science were true, how would gravity explaining the sphericity of the Earth mean that "the force of gravity made sense"? It would be the sphericity of the Earth that made sense if that were the case!

    "When I came off them my mum tried me on local honeycomb and it did the trick! I'm sure it's been "shown to be ineffective in a scientific trial", but trust your own judgement! It worked for me, and as long as it kept working I kept using it!"

    Placebo effect, and regression to the mean. Look them up.

    "It's the same principle as vaccinations or homeopathy. A diluted dose of what ails you, immunises you."

    You mean like how uranium cures radiation poisoning?

    By the way, that's not how vaccination works.

    And in homeopathy, there is no dose of what ails you. Because you dilute it until there's no chance whatsoever (this is just elementary maths) that a single particle of the substance is in the dose. You're taking pure water!

    (By the way, water has no "memory")

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  17. "As for homeopathy, Lynne McTaggart of What the Doctors don't tell you likens homeopathy to quantum physics in her book The Field."

    As someone who studies physics, she has no idea about quantum physics at all. Comparing homeopathy to it is making Richard Feynman turn in his grave.

    "She is also cautious about vaccinations. Ben Goldacre denounced the MMR scare as the biggest scam of the last 100 years."

    She's not cautious. She's virulently opposed to them. And the MMR scare was a huge lie perpetrated by the media and people like her. The fact he disagrees with your opinion doesn't make him wrong. You should google "cognitive bias" to see what your problem is here.

    "Old Africa hands don't take anti-malarials either, they recommend covering up, using nets, prevention rather than cure."

    Yeah, and part of the problem is that: 1. Old Africa hands haven't been educated in science for the most part 2. Homeopathics don't recommend even what the old hands recommend. Real doctors do.

    Something else you should look up is cognitive dissonance. How on earth can you reconcile the statement "Unfortunately he also felt the necessity to pick on easy targets, say nasty sexist things and generally be arrogant and unpleasant." with "What is it about Oxbridge types? They really do think they are God's gift don't they? Just because they are good at sums or whatever."

    If you want to attack generalizations and similar remarks by Goldacre, it would help if you didn't do the same.

    "you find yourself turning to homeopathy. Which does work. Especially on children and animals. I don't know how, but it does."

    Oh well that's settled then. Never mind all the science debunking homeopathy, it just works. We should just take your word for it. (By the way, diagnosing a disease is not homeopathy. It would be like saying a car mechanic making a sandwich is doing engineering when he makes that sandwich).

    So we should just take your word for it. Someone who tries to steal a book. And only gives it back when their friend makes them feel guilty. Someone who attacks the character of Goldacre, who, whenever I have seen him on tv, or read his work, does not come across like the caricature you draw here. Someone who perpetuates nonsense like homeopathy and anti-MMR rhetoric. Tell me: why should we take your word for it, when your word doesn't seem that good to start with?

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