Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Friday, October 07, 2005

Oh, what a tangled web is being woven on the BBC health site

Bad science

Oh, what a tangled web is being woven on the BBC health site

Ben Goldacre
Saturday October 1, 2005
The Guardian

The plot around a BBC online health correspondent gets thicker. Last week, you will recall, we were pondering the ethics and wisdom of Jacqueline Young dishing out preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense as if it was authoritative BBC fact, with phrases such as: "Implosion researchers have found that if water is put through a spiral its electrical field changes and it then appears to have a potent, restorative effect on cells." This bizarre claim has disappeared in a puff of electrons since my complaints although, amusingly, on the internet nothing ever really dies, and you can still revel in the faux-authoritative glory of the original BBC piece, via Google's cache.

Top marks go to reader Ben Rubinstein for spotting an obscure chatroom posting that he suspects may have been the source for her ramblings on spirals. I contacted the Beeb, but they haven't told me when the Young article went up, so we can't verify this. In fact, they're not very forthcoming on Jacqueline Young at all. I publicly doubted last week whether she really was "originally trained in the NHS as a clinical psychologist", as claimed in her BBC biog, since the people who run the register had never heard of her, and she didn't seem to have the relevant current qualification (oh, and because I work with clinical psychologists, and they are clever and sensible). I put my allegation directly to the BBC press office, and a week later they haven't got back to me. Hear the silence. Meanwhile her pseudoscientific ramblings still appear all over the BBC's health site. Suddenly everything by her has: "This article was last reviewed in September 2005" at the bottom, although not reviewed all that carefully, to be fair. Take this from her article on cranial osteopathy, riddled with half truths: "Sutherland found that the cranial bones (the skull bones encasing the brain) weren't fused in adulthood, as was widely believed, but actually had a cycle of slight involuntary movement." In fact the cranial bones do fuse in adulthood.

She goes on: "This movement was influenced by the rhythmic flow of cerebrospinal fluid (the nourishing and protective fluid that circulates through the spinal canal and brain) and could become blocked." There have now been five studies on whether "cranial osteopaths" can indeed feel these movements, as they claim, and it's an easy experiment to do: ask a couple of cranial osteopaths to write down the frequency of the rhythmic pulses on the same person's skull, and see if they give the same answer. They don't. A rather crucial well-replicated finding to leave out of your story.

Could the BBC reasonably be expected to know this? Well yes, since they were told in October 2004 by Ray Girvan from the excellent Apothecary's Draweronline blog: he has been making formal complaints about this article for a year now, with a contemptuous lack of response. To me, this is borne of an ambiguity about the status of what's on the page. The BBC has several long and sanctimonious policies on accuracy and probity in reporting: if "alternative science" coverage is specifically exempted from these, they should say so, loud and clear. I ask merely for clearer labelling.

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