Ben Goldacre’s barbs

I have recently been reading Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, which is based on his Guardian column of the same name. In the column Goldacre takes a satirical look at the media’s lack of accuracy when covering science. Goldacre doesn’t believe in the motto “if you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” He directs his barbs at pseudoscience, quackery and health scares. He is most definitely not a fan of Gillian McKeith, the Holistic Nutritionist and presenter of Channel 4’s You Are What You Eat.  Here is a selection of my favourite quotes from the book:

But these are just stories, and the plural of anecdote is not data.


Most people know that homeopathic remedies are diluted to such an extent that there will be no molecules of it left in the dose you get. What you might not know is just how far these remedies are diluted. The typical homeopathic dilution is 30C: this means that the original substance has been diluted by one drop in a hundred, thirty times over. In the ‘What is homeopathy?’ section on the Society of Homeopaths’ website, the single largest organisation for homeopaths in the UK will tell you that ‘30C contains less than one part per million of the original substance.’

‘Less than one part per million’ is, I would say, something of an understatement: a 30C homeopathic preparation is a dilution of one in 10030, or rather 1060, or one followed by sixty zeroes. To avoid any misunderstandings, this is a dilution of one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or, to phrase it in the Society of Homeopaths’ terms, ‘one part per million million million million million million million million million million’. This is definitely ‘less than one part per million of the original substance’.

For perspective, there are only around 100,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Imagine a sphere of water with a diameter of 150 million kilometres (the distance from the earth to the sun). It takes light eight minutes to travel that distance. Picture a sphere of water that size, with one molecule of a substance in it: that’s a 30C dilution.*


 The Daily Mail in particular has become engaged in a bizarre ongoing ontological project, diligently sifting through all the inanimate objects of the universe in order to categorise them as a cause of—or cure for—cancer. At the core of this whole project are a small number of repeated canards, basic misunderstandings of evidence which recur with phenomenal frequency.


Soon these food marketing techniques were picked up by more overtly puritanical religious zealots like John Harvey Kellogg, the man behind the cornflake. Kellogg was a natural healer, anti-masturbation campaigner, and health food advocate, promoting his granola bars as the route to abstinence, temperance and solid morals. He ran a sanatorium for private clients, using ‘holistic’ techniques, including Gillian McKeith’s favourite, colonic irrigation.

Kellogg was also a keen anti-masturbation campaigner. He advocated exposing the tissue on the end of the penis, so that it smarted with friction during acts of self-pollution (and you do have to wonder about the motives of anyone who thinks the problem through in that much detail). Here is a particularly enjoyable passage from his Treatment for Self-Abuse and its Effects (1888), in which Kellogg outlines his views on circumcision:

The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.


I’m going to push the boat out here, and suggest that since you’ve bought this book you may already be harbouring some suspicions about multi-millionaire pill entrepreneur and clinical nutritionist Gillian McKeith (or, to give her full medical title: Gillian McKeith).


 I once saw a bloke at the opening of a Jackson Pollock exhibition in the Tate, wearing a T-shirt that said: “my cat could do better”. What, you may be wondering, has that got to do with Dr Gillian McKeith (PhD)? Well now. Besides her PhD, which we have already discussed, there were a few other interesting entries on her CV. For example, she is proud to announce under “Professional Associations” that she is a certified member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants (AANC), which certainly sounds impressive. I bet you get a little certificate and everything.

In fact, I know you get a certificate, because I’m holding it in my hand right now. It’s in the name of my cat, Henrietta. I got it in return for $60, and it’s a particular honour since dear, sweet, little Hettie died about a year ago. So, coming in a bit cheaper than Gillian’s non-accredited correspondence course PhD and Masters degrees (although she will have got a discount from “Clayton College of Natural Health” if she ordered them both at once), it looks as if all you need to be a certified member of the AANC is a name, an address, and a spare $60. You don’t need to be human. You don’t even need to be alive. No exam. No check-up on your qualifications. And no assessment of your practice. I guess that could be embarrassing for some of their certified professional members. Presumably, the diploma is there to certify that you have $60.

….. But back to the money: if anybody wants nutritional advice from the decomposing corpse of my ex-cat, I shall be setting up a small shrine at the bottom of the garden, where you can leave chewed mice, ready cash, and offers of a primetime TV series on Channel 4.


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