The First Annual Quackometer Awards and Year Review

The Quackometer has been up and running for just about a year and has seen some serious traffic increases over the past six months. Starting off with just a few hits per day, the daily unique visits now stand in the many hundreds, with a peak recently of several thousand. Cripes! What started off as a bit of a bored joke has now grown into a proper web site.

So, a quick, tearful thanks to all the people who keep coming back. Thanks for all the correspondence, both encouraging and threatening. I hope 2007 will throw up richer, funnier and more useful functionality and content. Plus a few more innevitable threats.

So, to the main business. The quackometer scans various news sites twice a day on the look out for quack stories. I thought is would be good to review what has been found, where the stories are coming from and who is writing them. Awards will be made.

But first, an apology and admission. This is going to be very UK-centric – my time has very much concentrated on the UK press at the expense of many sources of potential quackery around the world. Maybe, I can get this working better next year for overseas news sources. I must say though, that the UK does look like its newspapers are particularly prone to printing quack nonsense. More research is needed to see if this true. Also, I must point out that the Quack News Scanner was only working from August – so not a full year yet in review.

And now for he disclaimers. This is not a scientific study! I make no bold claims to have conducted a comprehensive review of all the papers and I have not done extensive validity checking on all the spotted articles. Life is short and it is just for fun. Also, not all papers are represented. The Independent and Express are the big omissions (for technical reasons) and this is a shame since the indie spurred me on with a silly piece about electrosmog earlier in the year. Nor do I include the red-tops (bar the Mirror) partially for technical reasons, but mainly because they are different sort of beast where their readers engage with the paper in different ways than other more self-important titles. (My feeling is that papers like the Sun are not quite so credulous as one might naively suppose – I will be looking into this further). Finally, all the stories listed below, may not be quackery. As always, read and research and make up your own mind.

So, straight into the first award…

Quackiest News Source

The summary of scores for stories since the beginning of August 2006 is…

1) The Daily Mail with 38 stories and a total of 157 Canards
2) The Times with 30 stories and a total of 132 Canards
3) The Guardian with 15 stories and a total of 67 Canards
4) BBC with 8 stories and a total of 29 Canards
5) The Mirror with 6 stories and a total of 21 Canards
6) The Telegraph with 1 stories and a total of 3 Canards

(All papers include their Sunday equivalents)

So, hardly a surprise that the Mail (and Mail on Sunday) lead with 38 stories that scored over 3 Canards. The Times is not far behind. However, analysis of the data reveals a few interesting points. The Times score predominantly comes from its “Health alternatives” column. This is clearly flagging the stories as being ‘alternative’, or as we like to say here, ‘not real’. The Mail on the other hand makes no such gesture to alerting its readers that bollocks may follow.

It is interesting to note, that the Guardian has the highest Canards per story ratio. Maybe this is because the Mail tends to let a bit of quackery slip into lots of stories rather than just concentrate on the big quack scoop. The Mirror’s stories can be pretty much put down to one columnist, a Ms Gillian McKeith. No more to say there then – she has aggressive lawyers. And congratulations to the telegraph for only scoring 3 Canards for one story promoting osteopathy – but at least in an area where this technique has a chance of working.

So the winner of Quackiest News Source really has to be – The Daily Mail – Congratulations!!

A well deserved win. Its continuous commitment to publish rubbish health stories coupled with very few warnings to its readers that what is going to follow is complete nonsense mean that it was hard to beat this year. Furthermore, its commitment to give telephone numbers and web addresses of quack suppliers will undoubtedly result in many of its moderately wealthy, middle-class readers handing over their hard-earned dosh to the fraudulent and deluded. Despite the Mail’s aversion to tax of all forms, this is undoubtedly the Mail’s facilitated tax on the gullible.

Quackiest News Story

At the end of this blog, I have given a list of all stories the quackometer found that scored over 5 Canards.

A couple of smashing stories really stand out. Dr Danny Penman’s remarkable story about the healing properties of prayer was quite special. Also, the Times mindless plug for that rather silly technique Bi-Aura stood out from the crowd. But, by a country mile, the most ridiculous and credulous story of the last four months has to go to Sarah Stacey for that outstanding piece of work Good vibrations in the Daily Mail. The Quackometer spotted it, gave it 10 Canards, and it is difficult to niggle with that analysis.

The story plugs several different ‘therapies’ – all for a made-up illness and, at least in the case of the QLink pendant, it is difficult to conclude anything other than it is fraudulent. The QLink is a classic piece of pseudoscience, invoking quantum theory to explain its non-existent properties. There is a cast of thousands in the story, all offering testimonials for the QLink trinket, including Dr Wendy Denning (who still cannot spell complementary), Professor Jobst and Dr Mark Atkinson. Oh, how I love titles.

The winner of Quackiest News Story is – Sarah Stacy with ‘Good vibrations‘.

I think Sarah would also deserve…

Quack Journalist of the Year

for her unwavering commitment to writing and promoting all manner of quackery in the Health Notes section of the You supplement of the the Mail on Sunday. She has written a string on quacktastic stories, always with a good plug for the source, most often, Victoria Health. (If you join the VH Club, you can get a free Sarah Stacey book!)

So, the Mail has done remarkably well this year. Any surprise? Not really. As was recently well put on the badscience blog, nutritionism (or nutriquackery) is a particularly right-wing pastime with an obsession for personal responsibility for your health rather than looking to the wider society for causes and solutions. Thus, it is only your own fault if you are fat and poor, unhealthy or have badly behaved and underachieving kids. Pop a supplement pill to improve kids GSCE results rather than support and send your kids to the local school. The Mail’s whole point of view is based around a distrust of any authority that could challenge its small minded world view. Science and scepticism are direct challenges to the myths and delusions of its approaches to the problems of health, government, immigration and economics. No wonder quackery thrives.

Oooh. The little black duck got on his soap box for a moment. Back to a few more quick awards…

Most Blatant Piece of Dodgy Science Acting as a Marketing Press Release…

Dr David Thomas and the Mineral Depleted Food Scandal.

Jumping the Gun Award…

Gerry Potter, Professor of Medicinal Chemistry [de Montfort], and Dan Burke, Emeritus Professor of Pharmaceutical Metabolism for their work on salvestrolsTM.

Dodgiest Hawaiian Shirt…

Paul Pearsall for his work on Cellular Memory

Most Shameless High Street Quackery Supplier

Boots the Alchemist for their faithful pushing of homeopathic products to the public. Given that they publicly state, ‘integrity in the community, environment, marketplace and workplace govern all our activities’, pushing sugar pills as medicine is just not acceptable.

Most Distinguished and Ethical Quack…

has to be the Distinguished Provost of the Royal College of Alternative Medicine, Professor Joseph Chikelue Obi – although those are his words, not mine.

Finally, another plug for Sense About Science – a charity that I will urge you to make a small donation to. Their goal is to provide a source of contacts and information that the media can use to validate and research the science behind the headlines. I hope their work puts the quackometer out of business. It’s not a homeless charity, or one for poorly puppies, but I think this is a cause well worth popping a few quid via paypal to.


those quack stories in full…

10 Good vibrations Daily Mail
8 Ear acupuncture is the latest celebrity fad but does it work? Daily Mail
8 The English patient The Times
7 Can you feel the force? The Times
7 Health panel: How can I cope with crippling migraines Guardian
7 Osteoporosis; human papilloma virus; boosting your immune system The Times
7 The facts about prebiotics Daily Mail
6 Anxiety; back pain; green tea The Times
6 Back-pain acupuncture ‘effective’ BBC
6 Carol Barnes: How alternative remedies helped me beat the menopause Daily Mail
6 Erectile dysfunction and low libido; ginseng; irritable bowel syndrome The Times
6 How toxic is your body Daily Mail
6 It works for me: McTimoney chiropractic The Times
6 Natural household cleaning products; eczema; using homeopathic arnica during childbirth The Times
6 Organic milk better for a healthy diet Daily Mail
5 A feeling for healing The Times
5 Cereal offenders Daily Mail
5 Could spiritual healing actually work Daily Mail
5 ‘Downward dog, Dad?’ Guardian
5 Fairley and the chocolate factory The Times
5 Health shops give bad advice on depression Guardian
5 Health stores offer a cocktail of unproven depression drugs Daily Mail
5 Lesley sings the praises of osteopathy Daily Mail
5 Max H Pittler: Boosting your immunity Guardian
5 Max H Pittler: Exercise fatigue Guardian
5 Max Pittler: Natural remedy for gastro-oesophageal reflux disease The Times
5 Over-sixties advised to boost daily diet with ‘good’ bacteria The Times
5 Sitting straight bad for backs BBC
5 Speedy recovery Guardian
5 Warm milk and garlic It might sound vile – but itll beat the bugs Daily Mail

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