Bad Science Awards 2004


Candidates are The Sunday Times, described reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum) as having “performed well in trials to reduce the pain of postherpetic neuralgia”. The only paper we could find relating to this subject on Pubmed referred to a trial of four people in 1998. It had no control group.

Furthermore The Daily Mail meanwhile made big meat of a scientific study proving that the Atkins diet worked. The study, which only lasted six months, showed that the Atkins group lost just 4% more weight than the control group.

The winner is the Daily Express, for its declaration in September that “recent research” has shown turmeric to be “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate” on the basis of laboratory studies into the effects of a chemical extract on individual cells in dishes, and no (zero) trials in humans.

Bad Science product of the year

SPES Capsules are a herbal alternative therapy whose manufacturers had a sudden crisis of confidence in alternative paradigms: they were found in a study to contain contain betamethasone, a potent synthetic glucocorticoid you wouldn’t expect to find in any plant; and alprazolam, a synthetic benzodiazepine, much like the addictive “mother’s little helpers” of the 60s, which might go some way to explain the claimed improvement in “quality of life”.

Durex Performa were in a slightly different category of bad, meaning “evil”: a new condom with a special cream in the teat “to help control climax and prolong sexual excitement for longer lasting lovemaking”. The magic ingredient was benzocaine, a local anaesthetic, which made the judges’ tongues go numb. We didn’t even think about trying it on our genitals. Persil Aloe Vera also received a special mention for totemic and pointless use of a herbal ingredient by a biotech firm.

Then there’s Cussons’ Carex, a soap that “effectively removes bad bacteria on hands, whilst gently protecting the good”. It was never made entirely clear how it was supposed to do this in the company’s evidence to the ASA for a complaint which they lost on. “Carex knows the difference.”

The winner was Space Tomato Number One, part of the Chinese government’s “space breeding” project, where radiation in space is used to create comic book mutations and giant space plants, including tomatoes weighing almost a kilogram. It was never made entirely clear why the mutations would be beneficial, or why you needed to be in space to get irradiated. The Chinese news agency Xinhua stated that, “in China the radiation effect is always positive, leading to bigger and better vegetables that will revolutionise agriculture.”

Least plausible cosmetics claim

Valmont’s Cellular DNA Complex is made from “specially treated salmon roe DNA”, at the bargain price of £236 for seven phials. According to the Sunday Times’ style supplement, it “enhances the cosmetic properties (moisturising, regenerating and protecting) of DNA”. “Sadly,” their correspondent continued, “smearing salmon on your face doesn’t have the same effect.”

PO2 Contour Cream from Laboratoires Herzog is a “patented stabilisation of oxygen within a cream” that “puts oxygen back into the skin, reoxygenates skin cells, encourages natural rejuvenation”. It sounds like bollocks; but it smells like peroxide. Especially since Laboratoires Herzog point out, in the small print, that you will want to keep the stuff away from your eyebrows.

But the winner was a hair-straightening treatment by Bioionic, called Ionic Hair Retexturizing: “Water molecules are broken down to a fraction of their previous size … diminutive enough to penetrate through the cuticle, and eventually into the core of each hair”. Shrinking molecules caused some concern among the physicists at the ceremony, since IHR was available just 200 yards away, and the only other groups who have managed to create superdense quark-gluon plasma used a relativistic heavy ion collider. The prospect of such equipment being used by hairdressers was deemed worthy of further investigation.

Bad Science celebrity of the year

Juliet Stevenson made a strong case, not for her spectacular performance in Five’s MMR: the facts, but for her infinitely more compelling performance as a concerned neurotic parent hyping up the dangers of MMR in the all-too-real world of Radio 4’s Today programme and elsewhere. She received a special commendation from the judges for her excellent abilities to manage health risk on a population level, by being photographed the week before the awards driving her car with one hand and using her mobile phone with the other.

Anthea Turner was commiserated with on being burgled and losing £40,000 worth of possessions one month after having her house feng-shuied at great expense, and Carole Caplin also inevitably made an appearance, but both were trumped, to great popular acclaim, by Jeanette Winterson, for her excellent plan to send homeopathic remedies to treat HIV in Botswana.