Archive for the ‘bad science’ Category

Holding back the tide – it’s alkaline, by the way

March 5, 2011

In which Dr Aust tries to keep things in proportion

A common feeling of those who write about pseudoscience is that one is a bit like King Canute, the man who was supposed to have ordered the waves to retreat.

For instance, for all that has been written about what a total con water ionizers are, people still sell them, and other people still buy them.

And for all that has been written about how “alkaline water” is a bunch of bullshit and a scam – including by me – there are still preposterous claims for its health benefits everywhere. Blogger Andrew Taylor just posted another such claim, which he says he got as a spam email. It is a particularly daft one as it talks about water being ionized, or separated, by their machine into “alkaline water” and “acid water”.

Now, this kind of stuff always claims “alkaline water” is good for you, and the email Andrew got is no exception:

“Alkaline Water being the healthiest drinking water available to us, because it will increase the pH of your body, detoxifies and has an abundance of anti-oxidants”

[Hmm. It can only have antioxidants in it if it has lots of dissolved organic material, actually. Not convinced lots of dissolved organic material is really something you would want in your drinking water. But I digress.]

Having read that boilerplate, but typically overblown claim – “the healthiest… detoxifies…” – I’m tempted to ask sarcastically whether the stuff cures cancer too. Depressingly, the people selling this are there already:

“Due to restrictions on regulating the things we can claim publicly, we can not say certain things, that’s why I want you to do your own research specially on the “C” word”

Sigh. As all too often, the hyperbolic general claims about “detoxifying” are just the scene-setting for the subsequent hint of something miraculous that will cure real, and serious, diseases. (It won’t, of course.) What this suggests is that the sellers are targetting their claims at the sick and desperate, as well as the “worried well”.

Now, remember also that this piece of sales pitch claimed to “separate” water into alkaline and acid fractions. While most quacks tend to claim routinely that “acidity” is bad for you, this email makes an extra virtue of the claimed “acid” water (which won’t actually be acid in any meaningful sense, but that’s another story) by claiming:

“The Acidic Water that is produced is a cleanser and is very good for skin conditions such as the eczema, cleaning vegetables, fruit etc”

Remarkable. No wasted water with Woo-water.

I am oddly reminded of a spa town in southern Spain where I once went for a conference years ago. The major product of the town was its bottled water, and the people in the hotel bar used to tell us how good it was for you. “Good for drinking. For your insides. Makes you healthy”. And if you didn’t like the taste, no problem: “Good for bathing in. For your skin. And for people with arthritis” Good inside OR out. Good acid OR alkaline. Just send money.

Anyway, faced with this daily tide of garbage, it is possible to feel rather like old Canute.

Except that…. the story (which is almost certainly apocryphal anyway) is not supposed to carry the meaning that Canute (or “Knut”, since Canute is an anglicization of Knut) really thought he could turn back the waves.

According to the story as commonly told, he did his commanding-the-waves routine as a lesson to his courtiers that he could NOT actually command the waves to retreat, even if they – the courtiers – kept buttering him up by telling him he was a great king, mighty and wise, could do anything etc etc.

Would that many modern leaders, whether political or in large organisations, were as aware of their own limitations.

Anyway, in the story Knut/Canute is presented as a man with a bit of insight, and not someone who would beat himself up if the tide refused to retreat on command.

Which brings me back to alkaline water. I wrote a post on this almost exactly three years ago (it went live on March 1st 2008) called:

What Could Be So Fine… As to be Alkaline (Warning: Irony)

The post has logged over 1200 “page loads”, so most days, on average, someone has at least had it open in a browser. Last month there were twenty-seven. I hope some of those people read it. I hope some of them found it useful, and that perhaps it helped to clarify for some of them why alkaline water is a scam.

And like the Knut of the story, I am not hoping for miracles. So I will settle for that.

Fox…Chicken Coop.. Contd

December 4, 2010

In which Dr Aust  is still convinced that you couldn’t make it up.  Though there is disagreement as to whether satire is dead, is alive but in intensive care, or has left the building.

Well… it has been a bit silent on the blog here recently, mainly because I have been feeling, as I said to some of my online friends somewhere: “writer’s blocked, sunlight-deprived and winter-torpid”.

So winter-torpid, indeed, that I have been shamefully slow responding to comments on the last post.

[Incidentally, the last blogpost was, I discovered to my surprise, the 100th one since Dr Aust’s Spleen opened for business. True].

One commenter I finally got around to replying to this week was “David Cruise (no relation, honest)”, who was commenting on my incredulity at the idea that the Govt was proposing inviting the fast food giants to be part of the strategy-setting group for tackling obesity.  (And, indeed, the booze conglomerates to be part of the similar set-up for tackling heavy drinking, though I didn’t put that in the original post).

David posted:

“I’m not sure what the ruckus about this story really is about. If it were a campaign of road safety nobody would bat an eyelid if Volvo, Mercedes, Nissan etc. were participating.”

My reply to this is here, should you be interested. But David’s comment did make me have a think about whether I was getting over-exercised about this.

On the whole, though, I don’t think so.

Partly this is because other people in a position to speak with some authority about it seemed, and seem to be saying the same.

For instance, here is a quote about Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, leading liver specialist and until recently president of the Royal College of Physicians, taken from the Guardian:

“[Sir Ian] said he was very concerned by the emphasis on voluntary partnerships with industry. A member of the alcohol responsibility deal network, Gilmore said he had decided to co-operate, but he doubted whether there could be

“a meaningful convergence between the interests of industry and public health since the priority of the drinks industry was to make money for shareholders while public health demanded a cut in consumption”.  …”  (italics added)


A White Paper…  White as in “fresh look”? Or as in “bogroll”?

One notable development, since the original Guardian article I was writing about was published, is that we now have an actual White Paper on Public Health, released at the start of this week, setting out the Government’s ideas.

So has this allayed the fears of people like Sir Ian? And undercut the cynicism of people like me?

I have to say that seems doubtful.

The headline messages of the White Paper (or perhaps the ones the Govt has been keenest to promote) are that public health and health promotion budgets and responsibility will be devolved down to local authorities. and that the money will be ringfenced.

Less prominently featured were that overall there would be less money for public health, the  “responsibility deal partnerships” (as before), and the clear steer that legislation (for instance, to curb sales of cheap booze) would be a last resort – or “vanishingly unlikely under this government”, if you prefer.

The Guardian:

“The Royal College of Physicians, which has always provided strong leadership on public health, said it welcomed a ringfenced budget and the attempt “to bring to the field a much-needed strategic focus and coherence”. But, said its president, Sir Richard Thompson, “the RCP is disappointed by the lack of detail, especially around how to deal with the threats posed by alcohol misuse, obesity and smoking. We wait keenly to see if the promised subsequent strategies will fill in the gaps”.

Which, translated, means, I think: “we are deeply unconvinced, to put it mildly”.

The Guardian goes on:

“[Thompson] warned that it took six years for the last government to realise that voluntary agreements with industry would not necessarily deliver on public health.

“On a whole raft of issues it has been clearly demonstrated that a laissez-faire attitude does not work, either in terms of promoting responsible behaviour among the manufacturers and retailers of potentially harmful products, or in creating an environment that would allow individuals to make healthier choices,” he said.

An example of the latter would be, perhaps, the “Traffic Light” food labelling scheme. This kind of “red light” system was supported by real studies, preferred by consumers in tests, and universally backed by the public health people, the charities that are concerned with the health consequences of things like obesity and diabetes, and the UK Food Standards Agency. However, it was deeply unpopular with the food industry, and  was ultimately killed off by the European Union, an act widely understood to have come after determined lobbying from the industry.

In this context, and given the traditional closeness between big business and the Tory party, Gilmore’s and Thompson’s coded but fairly clear meanings do not inspire one with confidence.

A less carefully phrased take on the White Paper can be found in a recent blog by Andy Cowper, the shoot-from-the-lip editor of the online magazine Health Policy Insight.


Public health White Paper out ahead of schedule; not worth the abbreviated wait

This public health White Paper takes the piss more thoroughly than a phalanx of urinals.

Is there a contest in the DH [Department of Health] for silliest policy of the year?

Its foreword states, “Britain is now the most obese nation in Europe. We have among the worst rates of sexually transmitted infections recorded, a relatively large population of problem drug users and rising levels of harm from alcohol. Smoking alone claims over 80,000 lives every year. Experts estimate that tackling poor mental health could reduce our overall disease burden by nearly a quarter. Health inequalities between rich and poor have been getting progressively worse. We still live in a country where the wealthy can expect to live longer than the poor.

“The dilemma for government is this: it is simply not possible to promote healthier lifestyles through Whitehall diktat and nannying about the way people should live. Recent years have proved that one size-fits-all solutions are no good when public health challenges vary from one neighbourhood to the next. But we cannot sit back while, in spite of all this, so many people are suffering such severe lifestyle-driven ill health and such acute health inequalities.

“We need a new approach that empowers individuals to make healthy choices and gives communities the tools to address their own, particular needs. The plans set out in this White Paper put local communities at the heart of public health. We will end central control and give local government the freedom, responsibility and funding to innovate and develop their own ways of improving public health in their area. There will be real financial incentives to reward their progress on improving health and reducing health inequalities, and greater transparency so people can see the results they achieve.”

Umm. There is a problem with this, which is that other than the stats on ‘Our Unhealthier Nation’ (to coin a phrase), it’s talking, in civil-service-speak, round objects.

A few examples of the more egregious bits of crap:

“…it is simply not possible to promote healthier lifestyles through Whitehall diktat and nannying about the way people should live”. Blatant horseshit. Public health measures that made undeniable and significant impacts include: seatbelt laws, drink-driving laws, the smoking ban. Public health is not solely about using the tax system and legislation to ban things, but both are vital tools in the arsenal.

McDonalds, KFC and Pepsi (or whoever) are not going to do things that meaningfully threaten their core business: the vending of youth-branded convenience, high-energy or high-fat products. It is Pollyanna-ish optimism to think otherwise.”


More in the same vein here. It is a bracing read.

And, having read it, I don’t think satire is getting off the ventilator any time soon. Unless the lure of a Big Mac and large fries becomes too great.


PS  As I was (finally) getting this ready to post, I heard the re-run of The Now Show on Radio 4, and was interested to hear the team offering their own take on Health Minister Andrew Lansley’s public health ideas.  On the plus side, they have found something to satirise. On the minus side – at least for public health – they seem to see things rather the same way I do.   You can listen to the programme here (for the next 7 days; the relevant bit is at 13 min 40 sec in).

Satire is dead. Have a burger.

November 12, 2010

One of my satirical and musical heroes, the great Tom Lehrer, was famously quoted as saying that political satire died the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

I am having something of a similar moment today.

This time last week I was reading in the British Medical Journal that 17% – around a sixth – of the colossal US spend on healthcare was accounted for by diseases resulting from obesity. [Original report here – pay to read full version]

Obesity is also, of course, a major source of health problems, and health expenditure, in the UK.

And you do not have to watch Jamie Oliver’s TV shows to understand that changes in our diet, and the inexorable rise of high-calorie convenience foods, play a role in this.

But Fear Not – our new Government Has A Plan.

It must, indeed, be a cunning and subtle one.

For how else to explain that the people who are going to be “helping” with the Govt’s new anti-obesity public health strategy are apparently to be McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo.

I am delighted that these major retail concerns, who sell such excellent, nutritious, refreshing and health-giving food and beverage products, are to put their undoubted expertise to use in making as much money selling us processed food as they possibly can helping us eat a healthier diet.

Alternatively, you might consider the following words:

“fox” “chicken coop” “in charge of”


November 11, 2010










Dr Aust often wears a standard red poppy for Remembrance Day. Though if white poppies were easier to find I might be tempted to wear both together, as discussed here.

When I wrote at somewhat greater length about Remembrance Day last year, I said (actually in the comments):

“I think most people who stop for a minute or two at 11 o’clock do it precisely to remember all those people swept up by war, many (most?) of whom never had a choice – “ordinary heroes”, if you like. And for me personally that includes the civilian casualties of war too, and the people who mourned the lost – all the victims of war, if you like. Though of course these two groups are not officially remembered on the day. But for me the day and the moment – not the official pomp and trappings – stand for all the lost and damaged of war, as much as anything can.”

And just today I read something else, penned by Dr Phil Yerboots, that brought home this point about all those other lives changed forever by wars.

So if you do want to stop at 11 o’clock, do it for whatever reason seems right to you. There are no rules about remembering.