Sense about Science ? equipping people to make sense of science and evidence
Examples of evidence hunting
Here are a few examples of where people have gone and asked for the evidence behind claims they've come across.
Being asked for evidence isn't a criticism. People ask out of curiosity and an interest to know more about the science behind a claim. It’s an opportunity to show you stand up for evidence and don’t make unsubstantiated claims.
If you've been asked for evidence and you're unsure how to respond, or if you have an Ask for Evidence story, then please get in touch: email@example.com
“Following an eye test at Vision Express, I was informed that although my level of myopia had not changed, there was a very small degree of astigmatism in one eye that was not corrected for in my current glasses. I was then passed from the optician to the sales team, who asked me if I would like to buy new glasses. I chose not to because I was happy with my current frames and there was no difference in prescription in terms of the strength of the lenses required. I informed the salesperson of my decision and was told that this was my choice but that my eyesight would “get worse” (the salesperson was not specific about how) if I did not buy new glasses that were corrected for astigmatism.
I have written to Vision Express to ask for the evidence behind this claim and am awaiting a response.”
As a new Mum and medical researcher, I am concerned about the popularity of amber necklaces and anklets used to treat teething symptoms in babies and toddlers. I am concerned that any real or perceived benefit of amber may be outweighed by the risk of strangulation or choking on beads.
Proponents say that Baltic amber is a traditional teething remedy and there are many online testimonials from parents saying that amber alleviated teething symptoms for their children. These testimonials are difficult to assess scientifically because there is no way of knowing if the symptoms would have improved without the amber, given time, as teething symptoms often do. I could not find any formal medical studies carried out in groups of children, or using a placebo comparison treatment (for example, randomised controlled trials) which assess the effects of amber in a more rigorous way. In addition, I have yet to find any scientific study explaining how amber works as a treatment.
I wrote to amber-teething-necklaces.co.uk to ask if they can provide any evidence for the claims they make about their products. Although the website warns that its products should be worn under supervision I asked for some justification that the benefits outweigh the risks. I have not yet received a reply.
An article in the Evening Standard claimed there was a growing trend for “new mothers to turn to placenta ‘smoothies’ to ward off postnatal depression”. The article also included claims from a homebirth midwife who said:
“There’s more information coming out that it is beneficial and can reduce postnatal depression, for example, and increase milk supply.”
I contacted the hospital named in the article to see whether there was any evidence back up this claim – and whether the hospital itself had a policy on advocating placentophagy. I received a reply the same day saying:
“It's not hospital policy so it isn't something midwives would mention unless asked. The request would always come from the mother in the same way that some people ask to take the placenta away to bury under a tree etc. It's a personal choice.”
I was also told there was “a lot of information for and against the practice on the web” and directed to an article from the British Journal of Midwifery which concluded that evidence of benefits was lacking, but due to the increasing popularity “midwives should familiarise themselves with this practice”.
Finally I contacted the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) to see if it had any specific guidance. Janet Fyle, Midwifery Adviser responded later that day to say:
“There is no clear evidence for the current claims and until there is good scientific evidence for the claims, the RCM cannot endorse these claims or advise women to eat or convert their placenta into pills. However, the placenta belongs to the mother and she can chose to eat her placenta or otherwise.”
I'm still waiting to hear back from the midwife quoted in the article - but it looks there isn't much evidence at the moment and ultimately it boils down to patient choice.
On 4th July The Times and the Daily Mail had stories on TV harming children’s brains from a 4Children report by Tim Loughton MP who said “internet addiction causes changes in the brain, like those seen in alcoholics and cocaine addicts”. We often hear from worried parents who have to navigate alarming claims like this. I asked Tim Loughton if he had any evidence for his claim.
I was pleased to get a response, albeit a very brief one: “The research is referenced in the essay footnotes to H Richardson 2012”. I got hold of the report and found the reference, which turned out not to be research, but a BBC article written by Hannah Richardson. I couldn’t find any mention of internet addiction in the article. Only reporting on a review about the effects of screen time on children by the psychologist Aric Sigman in the Archives of Disease in Childhood. I had a look at the review which wasn't actually a systematic review – Sigman had included newspaper articles and even the Nintendo website as references.
I looked for some expert commentary about the review and found this from Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at the University of Oxford: “Aric Sigman does not appear to have any academic or clinical position, or to have done any original research on this topic. His comments about impact of screen time on brain development and empathy seem speculative in my opinion, and the arguments that he makes could equally well be used to conclude that children should not read books.” Psychologist Peter Etchells also wrote a useful take down explaining the problem with cherry-picking data to suit your argument.
I’ve sent my findings to Tim Loughton MP and asked if he will correct his claim if he still can’t show me robust evidence for it."
"I wrote to Amber Necklaces UK (owners of amberbaby.co.uk) via Facebook asking them to back up claims that:
"Baltic amber contains analgesic properties and helps take the edge off of many types of discomfort associated with dental issues, headaches, joint pain, etc. It is a well known European method to help decrease the pain associated with teething. Strengthening the body's immune system. In many different and subtle ways, succinic acid helps boost the body's own natural healing ability and immune system. Amber allows the body to heal by absorbing and transmuting negative energy into positive energy (ions). Experts and scientists confirmed that unpolished Baltic sea amber is the most effective to use in amber teething necklaces."They have not yet responded to my request, or removed the claims from their literature. I am interested to find out if there is any research to back up amber wearing as an effective way to reduce pain."
"I wanted to know more about some research suggesting that vapour from e-cigarettes makes antibiotic-resistant bacteria more dangerous. The research was covered in several daily newspapers and on The Conversation UK blog, which said that the findings were presented to a conference and were from experiments in cells in a dish. So I asked the author whether it had been published, whether there was any evidence of harm in humans, and about the difference in effect on bacteria between tobacco smoke and e-cigarette vapour.
The author, Dr Crotty from UCSD, replied promptly, saying, "The research is still in the preliminary stages, thus it has not been published. It did undergo peer-review to be accepted for presentation at the ATS conference (American Thoracic Society). I, of course, want to submit it to a journal ASAP."
Dr Crotty went on to say that, because the bacteria were exposed to tobacco vapour in a dish, "A more accurate statement is that the e-cigarette vapor that I tested significantly diminished the ability of human and mouse cells to kill bacteria..." She described the experiments in more detail: "MRSA exposed to e-cigarette vapor was also more aggressive, but not to the same degree.If cigarette smoke made MRSA 100% more successful at causing pneumonia, e-cigarette vapor only increased it 20%."
Although this last point is a nice way of expressing the relative harmfulness of tobacco cigarette smoke and e-cigarette vapour, the harm was to the lungs of mice following exposure to vapour in a dish. The way the research was reported didn't really make this clear."
“We have been touch with Osmosis Skincare as we are very keen to see any evidence to support its claims regarding Harmonised H20 UV protection. At this stage the claims being made regarding this product are confusing. If it is, as it appears to be, just water then it is nonsense that it provides any protection from the sun. Should Osmosis Skincare be prepared to share its evidence for these claims as we have asked then we would be happy to examine it.
Without this evidence we would strongly recommend that people continue to use traditional sunscreen and to protect the skin with clothing, including a hat, t-shirt and sunglasses.
As far as we’re aware there has been no external evaluation or validation of Osmosis’ claims, something that is very important for any product that claims to protect the skin against harmful rays from the sun.”
In addition to the concerns of the British Dermatologists Association (BAD), Dr Kat Arney at Cancer Research UK pointed out: "There’s no evidence or scientific plausibility to show that this so-called “drinkable sunscreen” - which is actually just water - provides any kind of effective protection from UV radiation from the sun. Excessive exposure to UV from the sun or sunbeds is the main cause of skin cancer, and the only proven way to protect yourself is to seek shade during the middle of the day when the sun is strongest (11am-3pm in the UK), pop on a T-shirt, hat and sunglasses, and regularly apply sunscreen with a minimum of SPF15 and a high UVA star rating. You can find out more about how to enjoy the sun safely on our SunSmart website
Ben Johnson, the founder of Osmosis Pur Medical Skincare and formulator of all their products responded to BAD's request for evidence. Unfortunately the response failed to answer any of BAD's questions, aside from confirming the formulation is 100% water, nor did it provide any additional evidence to support the veracity of the product claims.
According to BAD: "Johnson told us that as this was a “new science”, and not taught in medical school, most physicians were not open to it. We would like to point out that new discoveries in science are a regular occurrence and are widely accepted by the scientific community, regardless of whether they are part of medical school curriculum, if they meet the scientific community’s standards for proof."
You can read the full exchange between BAD and Osmosis Skincare here.
“I contacted Marks and Spencer less formally via Twitter to Ask for Evidence about the claim that FreshfeetTM socks can “keep feet fresh by combating the bacteria that cause odours”. Following two explanatory messages from its marketing team, without evidence, I was passed to its technology team.
Supposedly although the team said it considered a range of sources during product development, due to confidentiality it declined to give any specific evidence. It then provided historical examples of antimicrobial silver use, making a good argument in their favor. However, I still didn’t get a simple example of published evidence. Overall I am a little unhappy with the evidence provided so far, they could have easily highlighted some general silver antimicrobial research, even if the research specific to these socks is confidential.”
“I contacted Crown paints and SteriTouch® Ltd about their claim that Steracryl antimicrobial paint produces “a bacterial reduction of 99.9%. Field trials in an NHS maternity ward have demonstrated a reduction in MRSA not just on the coated wall itself, but the surrounding areas."
SteriTouch® responded within hours with reports showing that the paint was independently examined using the JIS Z 2801 method (a Japanese anti-microbial lab standard), and that the claimed levels of bacterial reduction were demonstrated under lab conditions. However, SteriTouch® said that they don’t have access to the field trial data.
Crown paints have so far only responded to direct me back to the SteriTouch® website.”
Laura Macdonald, Healthcare Scientist at the Infection Control Team, Health Protection Scotland, gives her verdict on anti-bacterial paint and what they can and can't do.
"There is good evidence that contaminated environmental surfaces play a role in the transmission of pathogens between patients in hospitals. As such there is increasing interest in the potential value of antimicrobial surfaces in hospital infection prevention and control. Manufacturers of antimicrobial surface products including anti-bacterial paints would be expected to provide detailed evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of their products before they would be considered for use in healthcare settings. Importantly, however, the use of antimicrobial surfaces does not replace the need for regular and thorough cleaning regimens."
“I asked for the evidence that green tea (and a number of other substances such as red wine and dark chocolate) could have anti-microbial activities. I was re-directed to the original press release and study.
Reading the study, it seems they found that these substances can form polyphenol coatings, which resisted attachment and decreased viability of two species of bacteria. It seems to me that more work needs to be done to back up the claims I’ve seen. I wouldn't go pouring wine on everything to make it clean, anyway, as they did other things to make the coatings! Sense about Science passed the evidence I got to a scientist to see whether it can back up the claims."
“I was asking Antimicrobial Copper for evidence of the effectiveness of copper as an antimicrobial material in HVAC systems for air cooling and warming. Their website lists a large number of peer review papers from credible journals, and provides a convincing argument that copper does have scientifically proven antimicrobial properties.
There is less evidence specifically for whether these antimicrobial properties apply in HVAC systems. The website contains two peer review papers, one published in Current Microbiology 2012, and one published in Applied Microbiology in 2010, which provide good evidence that copper could have beneficial antimicrobial properties in HVAC systems. When I emailed for further information I was sent links to the same two papers.
I have concluded that there is sufficient evidence that copper does have antimicrobial properties, and whilst there is evidence that these properties will apply in HVAC systems, I feel current evidence is slightly limited and would like to see more.”
"Being a member of Voice of Young Science, I am always on the look out for claims which appear to be based on scientific evidence but are not. I saw an advert for the Philip Stein Sleep Bracelet in a magazine. The advert claimed that the bracelet is a 'night time accessory engineered to help improve your quality of sleep.' It also stated that 'A scientific study showed that a human cell line exposed to Philip Stein's Natural Frequency Technology (NFT) produced melatonin, a hormone that is associated with sleep onset, at levels approximately 20 per cent higher than those exposed to controls'. Being skeptical of this claim, I contacted Philip Stein and asked for the evidence.
The company responded to me with the following 'We have carried out scientific experiments using cell cultures derived from a human cell line. These studies demonstrated that cells exposed to NFT increased the production and secretion of melatonin, a hormone involved in regulating sleep'. However, they also stated that the results have not yet been published although they are in the process of publishing them currently.
Selling products and publishing claims before the evidence is available and, more importantly, peer reviewed? I remain unconvinced but we'll see whether the evidence backs up the claims when it's available."
"As a keen cyclist myself, I was intrigued by claims made recently in The Guardian that if 10% of all journeys were made by bicycle (as opposed to the current 2%), the nation would gain “the combined equivalent of more than 1m years of healthy living over a decade due to lower rates of inactivity-related illnesses.” The article went on to say that “if just five minutes of the average 36 minutes a day people spend in cars was used for cycling the NHS would see a 5% fall in inactivity-related illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and strokes”.
"In order to assess the validity of these claims, I contacted CEDAR (Cambridge University’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research), the department credited for the article’s statistics, and asked them for the evidence behind the various assertions made in the article. The lead author replied very promptly, and I am now working with Sense About Science, who are going to put me in touch with a scientist who can help me to interpret the research."
"While watching TV I saw an article promoting dishwasher tablets with ‘less chemicals’, instead cleaning through ‘active oxygen’.
I decided to contact Finish requesting evidence as to which chemicals were reduced and whether ‘active oxygen’ is safer and more effective. I've received a response to say they have 'escalated' my enquiry so hopefully I'll be able to see the evidence to back up these claims soon."
“I decided to ask Dr Porter where this particular statistic came from. He replied straight away and sent me a few links to papers on cocaine and heart attacks, as well as telling me that the ‘1 in 4’ figure was given to him by toxicologist Professor John Henry during an interview a few years ago. He couldn’t provide any more information as he was stranded away from his notes due to the floods! Dr Porter explained that by using the word “believe” he feels that he was justified in using the statistic despite it not being from a published paper.”
“Although I managed to find the BBC article in which Professor Henry stated that 1 in 3 under 30s admitted to St Mary’s A&E suffering from chest pain had taken cocaine, there was no mention of the link with heart attacks. I was unable to contact Professor Henry directly as he has passed away. However, Dr Porter did tell me that Professor Henry was hoping to make cocaine testing routine in cardiac patients at St Mary’s hospital. Therefore I am going to try and find out if this has been implemented and, if so, look at any resultant data.”
"While reading the Daily Mail I came across an article about copper’s destructive effect on bacterial infections such as MRSA. There were a number of claims that caught my eye: “when bugs encounter a copper surface, they are killed off in under 90 minutes,” and, “[that] copper stimulates several enzymes that promote healing”. With such bold claims I was interested to find out more.
I decided to contact Professor Bill Keevil who voiced these declarations within the article; requesting the primary research papers from which this information had been deduced. I am currently waiting for a response..."
“While reading The Telegraph, I came across an article discussing Education Minister Elizabeth Truss MP and her warnings on how gender specific toys ‘put girls off’ careers in science and maths. The article went on to say how she has chosen to back a campaign to abolish gender segregation in toy departments."
"As a female scientist with an interest in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) outreach, I was really interested in this article. I immediately wanted to find out if there was any evidence that the removal of gender segregation within toy departments would actually increase scientific participation for girls. I contacted Elizabeth Truss to ask about the evidence that persuaded her to support the campaign and I am awaiting her response."
“I had a ‘daily deal’ email from Wowcher promoting wheat or dairy food sensitivity tests from BMT Food Tests. Wowcher advertised the test as an alternative approach to food testing using bio-resonance therapy. Clients simply send off a hair sample and accompanying questionnaire.”
“I was sceptical that the tests work and also aware that the Advertising Standards Authority had ruled against similar advertising in the past. I emailed BMT Tests asking for evidence. They replied to say that many customers had reported excellent results but no clinical research has been carried out. I also raised concerns with Wowcher but had no reply.”
“I then reported the Wowcher ad to the Advertising Standards Authority and wrote up the story on my blog
“In The Express article a person with MS discussed the benefits of using oxygen therapy from his personal experience; this is presented alongside statements from MS Therapy Centres (who offer oxygen therapy as one of a range of treatments) about the benefits of the hyperbaric oxygen chambers."
"I contacted Ed Holloway at the MS society who pointed me towards a Cochrane review which found no evidence confirming a beneficial effect of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. He also noted he wasn’t aware of any recently published studies relating to this topic, or any ongoing or completed well designed studies. Holloway provided a comment for the article in The Express which to his disappointment was not included in full. While his comments on the lack of evidence for this form of treatment were relayed, it omitted his statement that:
“We fully support a person’s right to choose their treatment but would always encourage people to speak to their GP, MS nurse or other health professional before trying any new treatment for their condition.”
I’ve also written to the MS National Therapy Centres and The Express asking for evidence behind the claims in the article but I have yet to receive replies.
"After reading an article in The Independent which claimed 'cyclists are more intelligent, charitable and cool than the average person' I decided to ask for evidence. The article said the findings were based on a psychological study conducted by scientists at Mindlab. I've asked Mindlab who they surveyed, if it can be considered a nationally representative sample and if their conclusions are statistically robust. I'm looking forward to finding out how they went about this research as I'm a cyclist and I would like to be considered cool."
"MindLab got back to me and explained the statistics used to come to its conclusions. I’m going to consider the matter closed – I’m quite satisfied with the swift response. I am also pleased they have 'proven' that I am indeed cool ..."
"As a specialist reading tutor, I know that children with literacy difficulties need to receive teaching based on the best quality scientific evidence. With this in mind, I decided to examine the Department for Education’s (DfE) training materials for dyslexia, which are hosted by NASEN on this website ".
"I looked at Module 4, Unit 15 ‘Interventions for literacy skills’ Slide11 is about ‘’the process of the neurolinguistic programming intervention’’. On the same slide we are asked to ‘’Visit the Magical Spelling website to see a similar technique’’."
"I have now contacted the DfE to ask them to produce evidence to support the use of NLP and Magical Spelling for children with literacy difficulties."
Alex decided to ask for evidence after receiving a promotional advert for Brainwave, a soft drink that claimed to decrease the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in later life. The drink claimed to be based on research that has shown a positive relationship between the daily intake of green tea extracts at a certain level and cognitive health. It stated that the drink contained concentrated extracts which when consumed in combination enables the body to absorb the maximum benefit from the green tea extracts.
Alex emailed Karol, the marketing group behind Brainwave, to ask for a copy of any peer reviewed evidence supporting the drink’s claims. After several emails, Alex received a reply with a link to the Brainwave Studies page.
Since then the press release has changed its stance, from claiming it "will" reduce chances of dementia to claiming it “could” reduce the chances of dementia. Alex has also passed on the information to the Department of Health as well as the Alzheimer’s Society to see if the evidence stacks up.
"After reading several articles about the Highway Agency’s plans to reduce the speed limit from 70mph to 60mph on the M1, I decided to ask for the evidence behind this new policy. The telegraph’s article Motorists face 60mph speed limit on motorways claims that “a 60mph speed limit will cut emissions” and The Independent states that "the proposed reduction would reduce traffic congestion" as well as claiming “Lowering limits would reduce amounts of noxious gases emitted by vehicles and reduce polluting traffic jams”.
I have written to the Highway Agency to ask for the evidence behind these claims. How do we know that reducing the speed limit reduced pollution? And what evidence is there that the same reduction would also reduce congestion?
I received a response several days later from the Highways Agency saying it would get back to me with the evidence after the consultation period for the new traffic plans was finished.
"I was sent a marketing email from Ocado promoting the Dr Perricone 3 day diet. I requested evidence on Dr Perricone's website, and directly from Ocado, and also posted a comment on the Ocado facebook group. I asked them if they could send me links to evidence from placebo controlled trials in humans which showed that this diet had measureable effects on the skin.
I googled and found something on the Livestrong website which promotes the Dr Perricone 3 Day Diet too. It actually does admit that the claims have never actually been tested, but states antioxidants are good for you. Actually, the fact that this is promoted by Lance Armstrong's charity increased my suspicion that it's all snake oil, Lance himself not being known for his familiarity with the line between truth and fiction."
"I went to speak at the very engaging CORE Charity conference at the Oval, London, to around 400 people affected in some way by digestive disorders. In sharing our guide I've got nothing to lose by trying it and the questions people can ask to make sense of the explosion of treatment claims on the internet, I encouraged everyone to ask for evidence.
Yakult sponsored the event and spontaneously posted me its science pack, including an overview of its research on Lactobacillus casei, and a link to its research page.
It was great to see that my rallying call for everyone to Ask for Evidence, prompted the sponsor to send its evidence for our scrutiny. We'll be sending the studies off to an independent expert to see if the research backs up their claim that the strain of bacteria used in yakult (Lactobacillus casei Shirota) "is scientifically proven to reach the gut alive".
"The Lymphoma Association, a patient group, has a quarterly magazine called Lymphoma Matters.
The Autumn 2013 issue had an article on cancer-related fatigue by Tracy Eckersley, lead occupational therapist at the Christie Hospital in Manchester, an international centre of excellence. Her article stated that "the complementary therapy services at the Christie were involved in a large trial of acupuncture and CRF. This showed that acupuncture had a significant effect on fatigue levels. Reflexology is commonly used." (p.7)
On 12 October I asked Ms Eckersley for the evidence for her acupuncture claim, adding "why reflexology?".
Having received no reply by 5th December, I have tracked down what I believe to be the relevant paper, from a 2012 issue of Journal of Clinical Oncology (vol 41, page 6222).
The lead author of the study is Alexander Molassiotis, a Professor of Cancer and Supportive Care at the University of Manchester. His team randomised breast cancer patients to two groups: usual care - being handed a booklet - or to the booklet plus 6 weekly acupuncture sessions. 75 patients received booklet only and 227 received acupuncture. Thus the intervention group had a weekly visit to the hospital, thereby exercising themselves, and received one-to-one attention, whereas the others did not.
It seems odd that patients were three times as likely to receive acupuncture as not, and that there was no attempt to offer a control such as hospital-based counselling or massage. Most of us when we are ill appreciate some attention. This study shows that it is better to be invited to the hospital to have pins stuck in you than to be left to your own devices at home."
”The Daily Mirror recently reported that liver disease could be detected using a cheese-scanner. I asked Dr Neil Guha, Clinical Associate Professor in Hepatology at Nottingham University and the researcher quoted in the Daily Mirror article, for evidence that this cheese-scanner works and how it is being developed into a diagnostic tool. I was delighted to receive a prompt and thorough response.
Despite the implications of the article’s title, this is not a device to detect cheese, rather a piece of equipment to test how ripe cheese is based on differences in physical properties as it ripens. ‘A perennial issue of how science is portrayed in the media,’ Dr Guha states. ‘The quest for over simplification and easy on the eye headlines can often take precedent.’
The ‘cutting wedge technology’ described by the Daily Mirror involves using the cheese-scanner, or Fibroscan, to detect the elasticity/rigidity of the liver using sound waves. The disease causes scarring of the liver and this scar tissue is more rigid than healthy liver cells. According to Dr Guha:
“…the technology can distinguish significant liver disease from healthy livers with acceptable accuracy.”
“We believe our work is novel and has potential to change the way we diagnose and manage chronic liver disease. The data form the pilot study is encouraging and the next phase is to test feasibility and benefits on a larger scale.”
Liver disease affects over 2 million people in the UK each year. New, faster and less-invasive methods of diagnosis are badly needed and could save thousands of lives. Dr Guha and colleagues at the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust have been awarded an NHS Innovation Challenge prize to develop this method into a readily available test for liver disease.”
An article in The Telegraph which contained the claim “Fortnightly collections make bins a 'health hazard'” drew Cynthia's attention so she decided to “Ask for Evidence”...
"The study mentioned in The Telegraph article was claimed to have been carried out by the University of Tel Aviv for Binifresh, which is a wheelie bin hygiene company and claimed their product "Automatically kills odours that attract vermin, pests and flies Antibacterial. Proven to combat germs, bacteria and viruses". I first emailed the Binifresh company asking the experimental details behind their product claims. Daniel Woolman, director of Bini Products Ltd, was very kind to quickly reply to my email saying “The liquid inside the aerosol contains a broad mixture of chemicals including antibacterial chemicals. The spray has been tested in a Lab in the UK and has a log 4 reduction” and offered to discuss with me by phone. Currently, I’m trying to contact Daniel by phone for some more details but I’m only getting his voicemail.
At the same time, I tried to find the contact information of Dr Joseph Levin “from University of Tel Aviv” who was quoted in the article saying “The levels of disease-causing bacteria found in the bins are at a level that I would consider to be dangerous, especially to those with a weakened immune system, such as the elderly or young babies”, however, I could not find the name of Dr Joseph Levin in the university staff dictionary and neither any publications under this name from Web of Science database. Now I’m waiting for the reply from HR department in University of Tel Aviv and hopefully they can gave me a clue of whether a Dr Joseph Levin ever worked there.
With difficulties on both ways mentioned above, I tried to contact the author of the article, Ms Lucy Cockcroft, but again a disappointment to find out that Ms Cockcroft left The Telegraph."
“While reading The Times I came across an article claiming that people who lived alone threw away ’40 per cent more food and drink than the average person’ (£), according to statistics provided by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP). With such a strikingly high figure I decided to contact Ian Palmer an affiliate involved in WRAP media enquires. What were the methods through which such statistics are generated?
I received a prompt response with the latest household food waste report produced by WRAP and links to supporting documents detailing the research methods and analyses that were performed to obtain these figures. Having read through the information it seems as though the statistics synthesized by WRAP are pretty thorough, however the reference to this data in the Times failed to emphasis that they were only estimates based on data between 2007 and 2012.”
“The issue of global warming is a hot a topic at the moment and reducing our carbon front prints has been billed as a way individuals can limit or even reduce the effects of this process. I emailed the general office of Greenpeace asking for background information on their claim that ‘it takes 45 times less carbon dioxide to refurbish an old phone than it does to manufacture a new one’ ( Greenpeace page for this scheme is currently unavailable) and how this figure was calculated.
I received a response quite quickly from their office and a short conversation got me some information on the data they based these figures on.
I was informed that a fundraiser was responsible for setting up the scheme. They based their calculations on figures for a Nokia phone having a manufacturing carbon cost of 35Kg and an air freight carbon cost of 0.8Kg. I was not provided with any reference material for these figures and I have not been able to find any. I was also not provided with carbon dioxide production information for a refurbished phone.
These values may be correct for a particular model of Nokia mobile phone but it would certainly appear that they are not representative of all mobile phones and it’s not clear if the figures come from a detailed study or not."
“After reading a discussion in The Times which presented arguments for and against weekly refuse collection, I was intrigued by statements backing a fortnightly collection, relating to the lifecycle of the fly and how wheeled bins prevent the risk of increased fly numbers.
On contacting the articles contributors I received a quick response which was unable to point me to any specific evidence but did refer me to the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), which I was told ‘might have information about flies’. The CWIM were very helpful sending me a number of links to reports on the fly lifecycle and waste management. While I did see general discussion on ‘improved waste containment in modern society’, I also found a number of references to studies which linked fortnightly collection to increased nuisance from flies.“
In news articles in October, Boris Johnson was reported as saying that the use of biofuels in London’s buses, made from London’s waste cooking oil, could save 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. I’m no biofuel expert but this sounded like a lot so I decided to Ask for Evidence.
It took a month but I did get a response from the Greater London Authority (GLA) Waste and Energy Team. They couldn’t fully answer my question so they asked a colleague from Transport for London (TfL) to contact me. Both the GLA and TfL were really helpful, and took me through the calculation that led to Mr Johnson’s statement:
The bus fleet currently uses 250 million litres of diesel a year.
Defra stipulates that 1 litre of diesel is responsible for producing 2.64 kg carbon dioxide, so the bus fleet currently produces 660 million kg of carbon dioxide, or 660 000 tonnes.
According to the Department for Transport (DfT) calculations, if all the fuel was biodiesel, it would result in an 83% saving in carbon dioxide production (including processing costs).
For this quote, a conservative estimate of a 75% saving was used.
So if 10% of London’s bus fuel was biodiesel (a possibility with London’s current waste cooking oil production, according to the LRS consultants report), this would give a 7.5% carbon dioxide saving…
(7.5/100)*660 000 = 49 500 tonnes carbon dioxide
Within this explanation there are obviously a couple of values that we have to assume are true (from Defra and the DfT) but as it stands I get a similar value to that reported in the media. I wonder if Mr Johnson asked to see the calculations before addressing the press!
"An article in The Times stated that “Local authorities could raise £1 billion by 2020 by selling off rubbish”. After emailing the Local Government Association who made the original claim, I was directed towards a report by them from June 2013. The figure of £1 billion appears to have come from both a projected reduction in the level of contamination within recyclable waste and an increase in the proportion of its value that is returned to taxpayers.
"The reduction of contamination required to reach a figure of £1 billion was given by the report as 7.5% (from 15%). In addition to there being no quoted reason for using a 50% reduction, the current level of contamination was derived by taking a central estimate of values given by just two sources (which were 1% and 30%).
"Assuming these figures to be correct, I worked out that the proportion of the value of waste that is returned to taxpayers would be required to increase from 33% (the upper limit quoted in the report) to at least 50%. There was no cited evidence to suggest such a substantial rise."
Michael Ayers is a a trainee clinical engineer
"Altitude physiology is a rapidly developing field but much is still unknown. One area that is receiving a lot of attention is Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) - what causes it? Are some people more likely to suffer than others? Can it be avoided?"
"Despite the current uncertainty the Altitude Centre sell a product called Alti-Vit which will, according to their website, “improve your body’s response” and “enhance your adventure at altitude”. The website contains no data about the benefits of Alti-Vit but it does contain links to research relating to some of the individual ingredients and AMS. Many of these articles are either non-peer reviewed sources or of questionable relevance (e.g. Effect of Vitamin E on the Immune Response of Hypoxic and Normal Chickens) and so I decided to ask for evidence that supported the claim that Alti-Vit will "improve your body’s response” and “enhance your adventure” at altitude."
"A few weeks after the request I received a letter from the Altitude Centre (highlighting their commitment to research and making reference to conversations that the centre has recently had with ‘leading nutritionists’), a copy of a recent conference poster directly investigating Alti-Vit and print-outs of the indirectly-related work available on the website. The poster was the summary of an investigation titled 'The effects of ALTI-VIT on exercise performance at altitude' conducted by Dr Moir and her students (Kingston University) and presented at the International Sport Science and Medicine Conference in 2013. The single-blind study reported that 4x ALTI-VIT tablets (2x 24 h before and 2x the morning of the trial) taken prior to an exercise bout at ~2,400m (~15% FiO2) improved 16 km cycling time-trial performance by ~1 min (~30 min v ~31 min) and reduced some AMS symptoms (Lake Louise Questionnaire Score, headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms and fatigue/weakness but not light-headedness, dizziness or sleeping)."
"While these data are encouraging, this is a single, small study and further research should be undertaken before any claims are made about supplementing a population."
“I'm a long-term supporter of the charity War On Want (WoW). They sent me an email regarding GM crops saying that the "longest independent study on genetically modified (GM) corn” showed that GM and the use of pesticide Roundup was linked to "to organ damage and increased risk of tumours".
I emailed WoW to “Ask for Evidence”. WoW replied very quickly to my question, providing me with a copy of the study. The paper they were citing was a 2012 one by Seralini. On reading the study it quickly became apparent that it was a small, very flawed trial that just doesn’t support claims that GM is harmful (a quick Google search turned up masses of criticism of the study as well).
I emailed WoW to say that the evidence they provided doesn’t support their claims. I also suggested they contact Sense About Science for information on the status of the evidence around GM.
Unfortunately I've had no further response from WoW (not even an acknowledgement that my email had arrived). I'm disappointed that WoW, a charity that I’ve supported for many years, is promoting a campaign that is based on what appears to be poor evidence and bad science.”
"While reading the Daily Telegraph I spotted an article claiming that wind farms can knock ‘tens of thousands of pounds off the value of nearby homes’. The article was very specific saying a nearby wind turbine can 'knock eight per cent off average home value'. The figure was attributed to Philip Selway, a partner at The Buying Solution. I decided to contact Philip and see where this figure had come from. Was it a report that his company had published and if so did it look at properties across the whole of the UK or just in a certain region?"
Philip got back to me straight away to say that when he spoke to the journalist at the Daily Telegraph he was clear to emphasise this was “a subjective view based on no factual evidence other than my own observations”. He also pointed out that the company he works for only operates in the south east of England on properties worth over a million pounds."
So it seems that despite appearances the Daily Telegraph article was based on completely anecdotal evidence.
"This year at the University of Roehampton I have introduced a new module called ‘Good Science’ designed to get our Sport and Exercise Science students critically appraising the science we see in the peer-reviewed literature and in the mainstream media. As part of the module we will all Ask for Evidence behind a number of claims."
"I began by contacting a chiropractor to ask for the evidence for the statement that shock wave therapy could treat shin splints. I had no idea what Shock Wave therapy was (the information on the website doesn’t give much away) but the website informed me that “there have been many positive studies” with “heel pain and shoulder pain showing amazing results”.
"Approximately 1 week after my request I received a letter from Dr Niall Marshall-Manifold (Practitioner of Chiropractic and ESWT) which informed me that there had been “only a few studies into the orthopaedic application of shock wave therapy in the shin area” because the “treatment is still very new (under 15 years old)”. Dr Marshall-Manifold informed me that it is rare to just apply shock wave and that it is commonly used in conjunction with “normal evidence based therapeutic protocols”. Dr Marshall-Manifold also provided me with a printed copy of an abstract from The American Journal of Sports Medicine which concluded that Shock Wave therapy was an effective treatment for medial tibial stress syndrome (although the study design has been questioned)."
"I am interested to know what the overall body of evidence says about Shock Wave therapy, as opposed to this one seemingly questionable study. Sense About Science have a database of scientists and I'm hoping one of them might be able to clear things up for me."
Chris Tyler is Senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology and research methods lecturer at the University of Roehampton.
"Against a photo of Gwyneth Paltrow the Evening Standard ran an article headed 'Scheme to close yoga centre is like ‘shutting a hospital'"
"Triyoga in Primrose Hill is patronised (surely matronised?) by Ms Paltrow and Kate Bush. It is closing as the site is being redeveloped. The centre’s instructor, Nadia Narain, told the Standard, 'It would be like shutting University College Hospital. At UCH they give you medicine; here we give you a different type of medicine, not just physically beneficial but emotionally healing too. Yoga is well known to prevent health problems.'"
"I have a soft spot for UCH and its associated hospitals for many reasons. In 2003 they cured me of an aggressive lymphoma using high-dose chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant."
"I have written to Triyoga asking why they felt themselves comparable to a major teaching hospital and asking for the evidence behind the claim that Yoga is well known treatment for health problems. I am still waiting for a reply."
“Having read a Financial Times article about ‘Caveman cuisine at the office (£),’ I wondered whether there was any evidence behind the claim that it is healthier to eat as our ancestors did, because such a diet would better suit our genome.”
“The article cited two businesses promoting the so-called Paleolithic diet, so I asked them for evidence.”
“Mark Sissons’ Big Apple blog claims their products and advice can ‘direct gene expression toward fat burning, muscle building, longevity and wellness, and away from fat storing, muscle wasting, disease and illness’ and ‘can reprogram your genes in the direction of weight loss, health, and longevity by following 10 immutable ‘Primal’ laws validated by two million years of human evolution’ – so I asked them if are there any reliable scientific studies to back up these claims.”
“Robb Wolf also promotes the paleo diet, claiming that it ’is the healthiest way you can eat because it is the ONLY nutritional approach that works with your genetics to help you stay lean, strong and energetic!’ I asked him if he had any evidence for this, and whether a study cited in the Financial Times article about healthcare costs falling as a result of the paleo diet in Reno, Nevada was published in a peer-reviewed journal.”
"I look forward to hearing how healthy the evidence is behind this supposedly healthy diet."
"After reading an article in the Daily Mail which contained the claim ‘Fluoride also promotes the movement of aluminium from the stomach to the brain which is a major cause of dementia', I decided to write to Doug Cross from the UK Council Against Fluoridation asking what studies had been done to support this claim and how reliable the evidence is."
"Susan Hodgkiss from the British Fluoridation Society was also quoted in the Daily Mail article saying 'Systematic reviews of the scientific evidence have been undertaken – all have identified dental health benefits resulting from consumption of fluoridated water'. So I have also contacted her asking about the evidence behind her claims.
"In her response, Susan sent me a comprehensive report 'One in a million' written by the BFS detailing the benefits of fluoridated water. It included references to four systematic reviews undertaken since 2000 all of which identified 'dental health benefits resulting from consumption of fluoridated water'.
Doug Cross of UKCAF was reluctant to elaborate on the Daily Mail claim saying "I am not interested in discussing my opinions as reported, out of context, in the Daily Mail, recently." Although replying that I was interested in hearing his opinions in context, I have yet to receive a response to this.
I have now decided to contact the Alzheimer's Society to see if they have any information on the suggested link between fluoridated water and dementia".
"I was impressed when I read in the Hendon and Finchley Press (29/8/13) that I could get rid of those holiday toxins with Aqua di Aqu's of East Barnet's industry-leading colonic hydrotherapy. Furthermore,"it is an excellent way of correcting many common complaints and ailments including:
"Arthritis, candida, constipation, haemorrhoids, Irritable bowel syndrome,insomnia, persistent tiredness, Psoriasis, acne, depression,gas or bloating, headaches, Inability to lose weight, menstrual problems..."
"A trip to their website showed that it can also treat aching joints, allergies, acne, asthma, body odour, cold hands and feet, eczema, frequent colds, food craving and, irritability."
"Wow! This is Nobel prize material, but I needed evidence, so I emailed them to ask for it. I am awaiting their reply with enthusiasm."
“An article in the Daily Mail claimed medical studies had found links between babies that were swaddled and an increased risk of cot death, hip problems and other health issues. I researched medical studies surrounding this issue and have contacted the researchers involved to ask for the evidence behind the Daily Mail claim."
"I received responses indicating that some studies have shown a link between swaddling and an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Experts have also conducted studies in Asia where swaddling is the norm and, although the study was not large enough to show any effect on SIDS, found no direct disadvantages of the practices. They agree that the Department of Health’s official guidelines are correct: Although swaddling can be associated with a slightly higher risk of SIDS, there is no official guidance to say babies should not be swaddled.”
Emily is a biochemistry student from Bath University.
"Trawling through the Argos website to find things I need for my new home, I was surprised to find that Argos sells 'EcoEggs'. Argos claims the EgoEggs' ability to wash dirty clothes without the need for detergent is "not magic, it's science" and that it's "clinically proven to be as effective as regular detergent". They even have celebrity endorsement.
I am familiar with the unfounded claims made by makers of laundry balls, having convinced others I know to stop using them and start washing their clothes properly without pseudoscientific products. 'EcoEggs' look like they could be rebranded laundry balls so I have asked Argos for the evidence. I am awaiting a response.
Dominic Thorrington is a PhD student.
“My eyes were drawn to the Pret claim that they do not use any "obscure chemicals" in the production of their sandwiches, specifically:
"Pret creates handmade natural food avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the 'prepared' and 'fast' food on the market today."
As a chemist, I was intrigued to know whether there was a class of chemicals of which I was unaware. What are the properties of chemicals that make them "obscure" or "not obscure." I decided to ask for evidence, however getting this information via their advice line was like pulling teeth. What they eventually said was that there were about 300 or so chemical preservatives available but that Pret only used about 50 of them. On pressing them for some idea of which of these were regarded as obscure and which were regarded as not obscure, all I could elicit from them was that they were content with the use of sodium nitrite since it had been around for many years and well known. Trying to find an example of an obscure one however, came to nothing (perhaps they were too obscure).
This is disappointing. They are correct in saying that sodium nitrite is fine but there are more recent preservatives which act better to reduce food waste which is a far bigger issue than the identity of an approved preservative. This seems like a marketing strap line in search of some scientific facts, rather than the other way round.”Chris Howick works on regulatory compliance for one of the UK's largest chemical companies.
"I was shocked to find two signs in my local gym’s spa area saying:
“Please do not use any oils in the steam room as it causes health risks for people undertaking homeopathic treatments”.
As there is no evidence to show homeopathy works, how can something interfere with it? I contacted the manager of the gym to ask for the evidence behind the claim that “essential oils or olbas oils can affect homeopathic treatments”. I suggested that if the gym wishes to maintain its no-oils policy she should remove the sign and replace it with one stating oils are not to be used for “various reasons”.
I received a reply that provided a number of links to homeopathic news websites with articles stating that “strong smells interfere with homeopathic treatment and cause added health risks”. I replied with the help of Professor Edzard Ernst, an expert in complimentary medicine who told me:
“There is no good evidence to show that homeopathic remedies are more than placebos; and there is not a jot of evidence that these oils interact with homeopathics.
And it looks like evidence has won this battle because the gym replied to say that the sign has been changed!"
Angela Wilson is a PhD student.
“As a qualified medical doctor I often find people ask me questions of a medical nature outside of work. However I was somewhat taken aback when a friend asked me, after reading an article in a parenting magazine, whether the lunar cycle could affect heart surgery death rates! According to the article a study found that the moon’s gravitational pull affects the circulation of the blood in the human body and because of this, death rates from heart surgery was lower when the moon was waning. I had to admit that I didn’t know if there was any evidence to back this up so I’ve contacted the researchers to ask what the evidence is behind their claim.”
Dr Michael Wing is a paediatric doctor in training
"I have been chasing L’Oréal for evidence about their ammonia-free hair dye “Olia”. When I saw it on the shelves I wondered why they had decided to remove ammonia from the formulation. Is there evidence that ammonia in hair dye is bad for your health or the environment? I first filled in a form they have on L’Oréal's website for product enquiries but got no reply. I then sent an e-mail to the consumer advice address but still nothing. Next I tried twitter and the reply was “we would be happy to help, please e-mail us”! It seemed I was going round in circles. My last approach was to post an Ask for Evidence postcard. I did that a few months ago and I'm still waiting for their reply. I am wondering whether I’ll get the same response Louise Walker got when she asked them about products that supposedly strengthen hair, something like 'due to proprietary reasons data cannot be disclosed'."
Ivette Negrete is a Researcher at University of Birmingham.
"I follow Cosmopolitan magazine on Twitter and it recently announced it was doing a live Q&A web forum with the Nip+Fab creator Maria Hatzistefanis (parent company Rodial). I had heard of its products from a magazine. I remembered that they make anti-ageing creams with bee sting and snake venom and a ‘bust fix’ serum. I thought this was a good opportunity on a public forum to ask them about the efficacy and science behind its products. I asked for the evidence on the ‘bust fix’ claims and whether products containing 'viper venom' had any effect on the eye area.
Maria answered my question with the following response:
"Thanks for your query. Bust Fix contains CellActive®- Form, an active ingredient which has been clinically proven to:
Increase bust volume by 7% after 28 days Improve skin’s elasticity by 10.8% after 28 days Reduce wrinkles by 15% after 28 days
Viper venom contains liftonin, an active ingredient which smoothes the area around the eyes by up to 74 % within one hour."
I asked for further information about ingredient testing and was given an email address for Rodial. I have emailed Rodial asking what testing it has carried out on the products mentioned to generate the claims given in this answer. I am currently waiting for a response."
“In a recent staff newsletter from my university there was an advert for a free aromatherapy course run by the Sport and Exercise Department. The memo featured several claims including that essential oils ‘balance the body’s frequencies’, are ‘compatible with the body without side effects’ and that ‘their properties counteract inflammation, bacteria, viruses, tumors and much more.’
I asked the organiser of the course for the evidence behind these claims and I was put me touch with the aromatherapist who sent through a variety of information. The information was taken from an aromatherapy textbook and email correspondence; claims were mostly backed up with single studies and results from experiments done on cells in a laboratory were used to suggest medical treatments.
It was worrying that, in my correspondence with her, the aromatherapist wrote ‘I am not a scientist nor medical professional’. A concerning statement for someone who initially claimed to be able to treat tumours and viruses.
Several other staff members also complained and the claims were highlighted on social media (with Simon Singh contacting the university). Following this, the claims were removed from the memo.”
Lewis Dean is a research associate at the University of St Andrews.
"A friend recently drew my attention to an article in the Daily Mail in which psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos claimed that research had demonstrated that playing games such as hopscotch and hide and seek could prevent and treat anxiety in young children. The article was ambiguous about whether Dr Papadopoulos had undertaken the research herself or whether she was merely commenting on studies conducted for the British Toy and Hobby Association's 'Make Time 2 Play' Campaign. The report stated that “parents who engage their children in regular physical activity, such as active play, from an early age, help them to develop increased self-esteem and emotional resilience”.
"I contacted Dr Papadopoulos to ask for the evidence behind this claim and whether the observed increase in the child's self-esteem and emotional resilience could be explained by higher levels of interaction with their parents, regardless of whether this time was spent doing physical activities."
Niall Corcoran is a Business Development Manager from London.
"I read an article which reported Baroness Garden of Frognal saying that children can become addicted to computer games. I wondered if this claim was based on any hard evidence and if so whether she was referring to a specific type of game. I also wanted to know if it was just children who could become addicted or if adults were at risk too. Baroness Garden alluded to parental controls built into various games and how these could be effective, up to a point, in limiting the length of time spent playing. I wondered if this solution was adequate or whether there were other methods available to parents.
I've written to Baroness Garden in the hope that she can show me the evidence to back up her claims."
James Boyle is an underwriter from London.
"My local MP David Tredinnick, who is on the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, recently made a claim in Parliament that Traditional Chinese Medicine was effective in treating prostate cancer. I sent him an email to ask for the evidence."
"He returned a picture of an abstract of a Chinese research review. I tracked down the full review online but as a non-expert I found it extremely technical, so I got in touch with Sense About Science. They forwarded it to a specialist on their database who was able to help decipher it for me."
Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter Edzard Ernst said:
"The Chinese studies supplied in support of this claim are next to meaningless: several investigators have shown that virtually 100% of these trials report positive results which casts serious doubt on their validity. To the best of my knowledge, there is no convincing evidence that TCM treatments are effective for prostate cancer."
"Given that Tredinnick has just tabled an early day motion in the House of Commons (a way to draw attention to an event or cause) to congratulate a farmer for successfully using homeopathic remedies on sheep, I think it is time for another Ask For Evidence."
"I read in The Guardian that the Welsh assembly has voted in favour of a law which will allow hospitals to act on the assumption that people who die want to donate their organs unless they have specifically registered an objection..
“I am contacting my local Assembly Member because I’m interested to see what the evidence is that this change will help reduce patient deaths on waiting lists. I would also like to see the evidence to support the claim by Welsh Health Minister Mark Drakeford that family refusal is a major factor affecting the numbers of organ donations.”
Carolyne Hunter is a teacher in Cardiff
"I wrote to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, asking for the evidence to support her department's decision. I haven't yet received a reply."
“I found an online discussion of sex education in which it was claimed that people who had sex before marriage would suffer ‘oxytocin desensitisation’, and have a weaker bond with their eventual spouse.
I asked the author of the blog for evidence behind the claim and was sent to several websites which assumed this effect existed, but none which showed any research.
I asked the author again but while waiting for a response I contacted Dr Ellenbogen of Concordia University in Canada, who has done some research on oxytocin and mood. He said:
"I am not aware of any evidence of this. It may be possible in theory, but very unlikely in practice, as the doses people are exposed to are very small in comparison to natural fluctuations in this system. So, no I would doubt that such an effect exists, and certainly, social relationships are much more complex than a single hormone or neuropeptide.”
Guy Fletcher-Wood is a software developer.
"A recent letter to The Times from the Chairman of the 'International Pre-autism Network' (IPAN) made the astonishing claim that autism is caused by (among other things) 'reactive responses to parental emotional states and parental behaviour.' As well as writing my own letter to The Times in response, I’ve asked the author directly for what evidence they have for believing that autism can be caused by parental behaviour, and even for evidence of the existence of 'pre-autism', a term not recognised by the National Autistic Society. We’re in communication but I’ve yet to receive a definitive answer. Furthermore, on IPAN's website I found claims that they can diagnose autism at 3 months, that it is preventable and that they have 'proven success' in reversing its development. False hope preys on parents who can be desperate and vulnerable: if IPAN really have evidence for their claims, they should be able to show it to us."
"After a number of emails between myself and IPAN, they have agreed that as part of the re-writing of their website they will look again at the claims they make. Lets hope they go through with it. I will be keeping an eye on the site.
Anne-Louise Crocker is a mother of two severely autistic children.
"On BBC Radio 2 recently, the alternative health journalist Hazel Courteney made the following astonishing claim: “The average person absorbs into their bloodstream alone about 14 kg of toxins annually through their skin.”
"I could find no reference to this statistic online at all, and it sounded rather unlikely. After all nicotine patches, for example, only have a few miligrams of nicotine in them. Can we really be absorbing millions of times that amount of other substances on an annual basis?
"I contacted Hazel and she explained she’d relied on information used in one of her books, obtained from the natural health company Blackmores, but it would be difficult for her to find the original correspondence. She also, in fairness, admitted that she felt it seemed ‘unlikely’ that amount could be directly absorbed into the blood, but said that she’d been speaking ‘on the hop’.
"I have contacted Blackmores via their website to see if they can provide me with the original research or calculations. The quest continues!"
Dr Kat Day is a writer and chemistry teacher.
Christian Hendrich is a postdoc at the Szostak lab at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard.
"On my morning commute I was intrigued by the front page article in the Metro on the Bytox Hangover Prevention Patch that claims to offer a “powerful blend of vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants”. The Daily Mail covered the product as a miracle cure for hangovers. I explored the Bytox website and found a glowing ‘Doctor recommended’ piece. I noted in passing that the doctor in question is the product’s founder, Dr Leonard Grossman, a “leader in the field of cosmetic surgery” who says:
“Only an intravenous [drip] stuck in your arm while drinking could be more effective than a Bytox patch. Bytox is the most effective, ready to use product available for the consumer of alcohol, who wants to be functional the day after...”
"I called to ask for the evidence. After several unanswered calls I emailed. When my emails went unanswered I went to the Sense About Science database and found a pharmaceutical scientist who could give me a scientific opinion." Dr Gary Moss said:
"If their claims of efficacy are based on permeability of active ingredients that exert an effect once they have passed through the skin, I would suggest this is unlikely and that the company should provide evidence for this. If this is a medicinal product making medicinal claims then it would be good to know the mechanism of action and evidence that a sufficient amount, if any, vitamin has passed across the skin into the blood."
"It seems you might be better off writing “Vitamin B complex” on a post-it note and sticking that to your arm before a night on the tiles. Before I got to banging my head further on the Bytox brick wall, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) got involved. It told one UK based retailer to stop selling the patch because it’s an unlicensed medicinal product."
"Here's a good example of what you can do when your phone calls and emails remain unanswered."
Chris Peters is the Campaigns and Policy Officer at Sense About Science.
You can see Michelle's Ask for Evidence postcard here. Watch this space to see how Michelle gets on!
Dr Michelle Williams is a clinical research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.
"I saw an article in the Daily Mail talking about a range of anti-aging skin treatments. I was curious as to what evidence there is to support some of the claims."
"I telephoned Estée Lauder to ask for evidence for their Resilience Lift range, which claimed to support collagen and elastin production to “empower your skin to look younger from every angle.” The consumer care representative I spoke to was helpful, but unfortunately she had no information to hand so she offered to investigate and get back to me. And she did. She said there is evidence but that she would need to speak to R&D to access results and as this might take a while she would be back in touch in a few days."
"Just a week on I received an email from Estée Lauder regarding the evidence I was searching for. The email stated “all product claims are carefully substantiated in accordance with accepted scientific principles.” Good to know. Unfortunately… “we [Estée Lauder] consider this information proprietary and, as such, not accessible to the general public.” So apparently the claims are backed up; but without any experimental details we have to take it on trust, rather than evidence."
“Looking through the Times I noticed a claim in a Marks & Spencer advertisement for thermal tops, being sold under the brand name ‘Heatgen’. According to the advertising copy ‘Heatgen thermal tops not only generate heat, but act as insulation’. The insulation bit I could understand, but claims that a piece of fabric could generate heat seemed at total variance with our most basic understanding of heat and energy. I fired off an immediate compliant to the Advertising Standards Authority – describing the claims for Heatgen as ‘nonsensical and misleading’.”
“Subsequently, I found a reference to how Heatgen is supposed to work on a page on the M&S website – apparently the heat is generated by water vapour passing through the fabric. I passed the details of this web link on to the ASA, along with why I thought it ‘didn’t hold water’. I then emailed the M&S press office, asking if I could talk to someone who could explain the technology behind Heatgen. Either the claim is total nonsense, in which case it’s a matter for the Advertising Standards Authority, or it represents a fundamental breakthrough in our understanding of heat and energy, in which case it’s a great story for my magazine."
“I’ve yet to hear from the M&S press office, but I’ve now heard from heard from the ASA, and, M&S are withdrawing the heat generating claim, which no longer appears on their website and will not be used in any future advertising. A good result for science, the ASA, and, not least, M&S – they got their basic science wrong, but they’ve moved promptly to make amends.”
"Refreshingly, it was very easy to find the study cited, which was available for free and in full on the research section of the Department for Education’s website. Still, it seems as though the Minister may have over-sold it a bit – the research actually investigated whether the Phonics test could be carried out successfully, and didn’t really go into any benefits that it might offer relative to other (perhaps less fashionable) techniques.”
Dr Duncan Casey is a member of VoYS, and a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Chemical Biology.
"I found the email for their press office and asked for the evidence. Being a smoker myself I could see the danger of people trying to buy themselves “cigarette credits” by drinking wheatgrass juice. I also told the office that a copy of that letter had been sent to Sense About Science and several newspapers and social media sites."
"The following day I received the message that they "have withdrawn that particular leaflet from the shop floor while [they] review its content". This was the best possible outcome. I felt like a scientific avenger, a Nerdy Knight of sorts. I go to the same shop every day and every time I see a gap where the leaflet used to be, I must admit, I get a bit of a pedantic smile. I hope they'll think twice before making unsubstantiated claims in the future."
Dr Rita Jorge has a PhD in Chemistry and is now a science policy Research Officer, interested in evidence based Veterinary Medicine.
Tamlyn Peel is a member of the Voice of Young Science Network (VoYS) and is studing immunology for his PhD.
"I received a prompt response from the UK Chair of the Massage in Schools Association. They pointed me to some studies that had been published, including one that was particularly small, and admitted that there was only anecdotal evidence to support the claim that children experienced “better sleep at home”. They also told me that much of the research to support the claims had not yet been published or peer reviewed."
"I emailed back to say that I was concerned about basing claims on research that had not been published, and claims based on small studies. I think that parents and teachers should know whether there is real evidence to support the implementation of programmes in UK schools."
Sarah Walker is a volunteer at Sense About Science.
Jessica Barton got in touch with us via Facebook.
Update: M&S no longer stock 'MRSA resistant' pyjamas.
Dr Jennifer Lardge is a member of the Voice of Young Science network (VoYS) who studied nanotechnology for her PhD.
“I recently ran a sponsored half-marathon. Before the run, I received an information pack which included The Guide to Getting Fitter and Keeping Healthy. This guide was full of claims about avoiding chemicals and taking supplements to keep healthy. I decided to write to Sense about Science about this. They sent me their Making Sense of Chemical stories guide and Celebrities and Science 2010 to read, which I then sent to the half-marathon organisers to show where they had got the science wrong.”
“I am frustrated by this belief that a naturally derived chemical is better for you than a synthetically derived one, when in reality there is no difference. I wanted to talk to Pret A Manger. Every time I go there for a sandwich I am handed its leaflet Good Stuff which tells me that Pret ‘shun the obscure chemicals’. I called the customer helpline to ask what ‘obscure chemicals’ are. Pret told me: ‘We don’t use any chemicals to preserve, or to avoid any insects upon [our food], it’s all natural. I pointed out all food is made of chemicals – so Pret must have chemicals in its food.”
"I have Crohn’s disease, amongst other chronic health problems, and am sick of people telling me of the supposed efficacy of the numerous quack remedies being sold and touted as wonder-treatments and cure-alls. One of these is the Bowen Technique."
"Several people have told me they have been ‘cured’ by Bowen Technique (which appears to be a cross between rubbing and manipulating certain parts of the body), or that they have been ‘prevented from being ill’ by it. I contacted the Bowen Technique after reading the outrageous claims made on their website - that the Bowen Technique improves circulation, lymphatic and venous drainage and helps nutrient absorption - and asked for evidence of these claims.”
“I got a reply saying, ‘We are sure you are already aware that there is a plethora of high quality research data available on the internet relating to the Bowen Technique, a substantial amount of which has already been sent to the A.S.A.’. Yet they failed to provide any of this evidence or say if the evidence available was peer-reviewed. The nameless respondent also stated that the ASA had told them there are ‘no problems with the website’. Their respondent also seemed confused about what evidence-based medicine is, and asked me to provide evidence as to what it is; which, for me, says everything. After replying, I am still waiting to hear back from them."
"I recently came across a mention in the Daily Express about a new product to enhance breast volume called Nip+Fab Bust Fix. The product claims to work by “stimulating the formation and storage of naturally occurring fat cells in the breasts.” While this sounds like it could be a science-based claim, the Daily Express very responsibly questioned the basis of how the product is proposed to work saying, “We can’t see how cream can get under the skin to make the breasts grow.” I decided to take this healthy skepticism one step further and ask the company for the evidence behind their claim."
"The Nib+Fab website described a scientific mechanism for the products action, involving “activation of lipid accumulation (in vitro)” and “lipogenesis (formation of fat) in human adipocytes (fat cells).” Based on this description it seemed likely that a scientific study and/or product trial had been conducted but this information was not available on the Nip+Fab website, so I emailed the company asking if they could provide further information about the scientific basis for Bust Fix and the mechanism of its active ingredient(s) as well as indicate whether or not any studies conducted have been peer-reviewed. When I didn't receive a reply in a few days, I followed up with a phone call to Nip+Fab. The customer service representative was unable to provide more detailed product information, but assured me that they would respond to my email enquiry. I am still waiting for a response."
“A recent article in the Daily Mail claimed that Protexo, a machine that filters out allergens in the air, could improve the quality of life of asthma sufferers by 15%. I decided to ‘ask for evidence’. I sought out the peer-reviewed original study, which analysed the effect of the Protexo machine on asthma sufferers, to find out whether this was true or whether the article could be giving asthmatics false hope through misleading statistics.”
“The study was published in the journal Thorax. It found through a randomised control trial that there was a 15% difference between the group using the machine and the placebo group in the number of people whose quality of life (determined by a questionnaire) was increased by 0.5 points or more. This is the smallest clinically significant value – so I’m not convinced when the Daily Mail article suggests that ‘the quality of life for those that used the machine was 15% better than those given a dummy machine’. It was good that I could find a paper on which the claims were based, but this story highlights the importance of precise phrasing when reporting the results of clinical trials.”
"The manufacturer Valkee has recently released an in-ear product to ease symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The product is a similar size and shape to an MP3 player with earphones designed to beam light directly into the ear. Valkee claim that when used for 8-12 minutes a day, 5 days a week for 4 weeks the product can ease depressive symptoms. Due to the novel concept of delivering light therapy through the ear (and not the eyes) the Valkee product has received coverage in newspapers and online. The manufacturer claims that the success of the in-ear product is due to the brain’s ability to react to light. I decided to ask for evidence for this claim."
"I first looked for evidence on the Valkee website. I tried to find out if Valkee’s research used randomised trials, control groups, and whether it was peer reviewed. The current evidence from Valkee supporting the in-ear product does not follow these standards. For example, one study concluded that "92% of winter blues sufferers experienced total symptom relief with 8-12 minutes of Valkee daily" but this study did not include a control group who should have received no light therapy or a placebo. Another claim that the "human brain is sensitive to light, not just our eyes" was based on a study using cadavers, and has not yet been published in a peer reviewed journal. Good quality evidence supporting the Valkee in-ear product, for the purpose of easing symptoms associated with SAD, is still not available."
"I read an article in the Independent about a DNA dating website, Genepartner.com, selling a genetic compatibility test (for $US249) based on the claims that genetic compatibility results in a successful relationship, a more satisfying sex life and higher fertility rates/healthier children. The article did exercise some scepticism about these claims, although it did not appear that any contact had been made with the company. I decided to write to the company to request evidence to back up their claims. I asked about the size of the studies and if they were peer-reviewed, and also if they were based on human studies. I am yet to receive a reply from them."
"A number of newspapers ran a story saying that children who have problems with speech and language at age 5 are twice as likely to be unemployed when they're in their thirties, and more likely to go to prison. I decided to ask for evidence for this claim. I started out by reading the report from the Communication Trust that was referred to by the articles. The report mentioned the same claims, but it didn't provide any references. So I emailed the author of the report. Happily, she replied very quickly and sent me a document full of references to peer-reviewed articles. I would say that this was a case of a successful ‘Ask for Evidence’."
"I asked to see the evidence for Nanoblur, a cream that claims to make you look 10 years younger in 40 seconds, after seeing adverts for it in several newspapers. The evidence they present on their website is all photo based, and in one article it said there was a sample size of 45. According to their website the silicone based cream contains particles that reflect light perfectly in billions of directions to make the skin’s surface appear completely flawless, and it is a silicone based cream."
"The claims appear to be based on the perceived changes in these 45 subjects so I asked to see their data; hoping to uncover the type of trial used. Seeing as they haven’t got back to me, I don't know if there was a control group or whether the tests were blinded in any way. As a result I am dubious about the adverts: I’m concerned there may be post-production editing and I'm quite confident that the effects of the cream are not unique, as other skin creams also use silicone based ingredients to smooth the skin."
"I saw a Facebook ad for the "The OSMO Patch™ which provides Fast & Effective relief from swelling, pain and inflammation from bursitis" (bursitis is inflammation of the fluid-filled sac [bursa] that lies between a tendon and skin, or between a tendon and bone). I asked the manufacturer, MediWise Pty Ltd, to provide harder evidence than letters of testimonials found on their website. I also asked whether their data has been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals."
"MediWise customer care admitted that there is no hard clinical evidence to support their claims because they ‘do not have the kind funds to commission such research’ and pointed me to a YouTube video, which explains how the patch works. Apparently it involves the mineral tourmaline which is described as an infra-red emitter. Increased sweating induced by infra-red emissions from the patch increases the osmotic pressure in the surrounding tissues, loss of fluid from the blood vessels to compensate, and loss of fluid from the adjacent inflammation. However, this all falls down because blood circulates, so local dehydration of blood vessels will not occur."
"I read an article in the Daily Mail on 8th December 2011 reporting that managers at several NHS trusts are encouraging doctors to limit Viagra prescriptions to two pills per month The article said that the guidelines set by the Department of Health are that one Viagra pill per week is sufficient because this is the “frequency of intercourse” for middle-aged men. I contacted the Department of Health to ask for the evidence behind this claim, and for more information on Viagra prescriptions. I was pleased to get a clear response from their Customer Service Centre (CSC)."
"Firstly, the CSC said that “the extract from the Daily Mail’s article is somewhat misleading.” They provided me with a clearer description of the prescription guidelines stating that “the frequency of treatment will need to be considered on a case by case basis.” The response went on to say that Viagra prescription guidelines are based on evidence from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (1990) which shows that the average frequency of sexual intercourse in the 40-60 age range is once a week. The response finished by saying “The Department of Health advises doctors that one treatment a week will be appropriate for most patients treated for erectile dysfunction. If the GP, in exercising his clinical judgement, considers that more than one treatment a week is appropriate he should prescribe that amount on the NHS.”"
"I am glad I asked for evidence and I think the Department of Health was pleased to be able to clarify and set out the evidence the guidelines are based on."
“A company called LifeLine Screening ran a full page advert in The Guardian, which stated that they offered an ultrasound examination which could help prevent abdominal aneurysm formation. An abdominal aneurysm is a potentially life threatening widening of the body's largest artery, which, if detected early, can be surgically corrected. While ultrasound is the foremost method for aneurysm detection, and indeed the NHS is rolling out a screening programme for this purpose, it does not follow that ultrasound can prevent aneurysm formation.”
“I spoke with a member of staff from the company, who said that the meaning of 'prevent' was 'a matter of my point of view', but he could offer no evidence to support the company's claim. I disagreed that 'prevent' was in any way vague in its meaning, but the conversation began to circle. He advised me that 'all the information' was on the company's website (which was not the case) and said there were no doctors/ultrasonographers available for me to talk to. This was a frustrating exchange, but I hope to pursue this claim further.”
“I read a claim on the on the NHS Choices website saying ‘research measuring water loss has shown that we should drink about 1.2 litres of fluid every day to stop us getting dehydrated.’ This is similar to the common idea of drinking 7 cups of water a day, but where does this exact volume come from? I asked for the evidence behind this claim.”
“I got a short response from the NHS Choices Editorial Team. They said that the information on their website is ‘consistent with current advice from the Department of Health. This advice is based on evidence from Fitzsimmons J.T. "The Physiology of Thirst and Sodium Appetite" (1979).’ After sifting through the almost 600 page book I was unable to find the specific study investigating human water loss and dehydration. In my opinion, publications from 1979 should not always be considered ‘current’, and therefore I am not satisfied with the evidence supplied.”
“Recently I have come across several articles in the tabloids describing a painful condition called ‘text neck’, caused by the neck being flexed for a prolonged period. It is claimed that the number of sufferers are increasing as the use of smart phones and tablet computers become more popular. The article mentioned the British Chiropractic Association so I emailed and telephoned to ask for evidence, but have not yet received a response.”
“Although I could find plenty of evidence that confirms bad posture leads to back and neck problems, I have only been able to find one scientific study which directly investigated the link between musculoskeletal pain and phone use. It found a significant association between internet browsing and pain in the right thumb. It also found association between phone use and pain in the right shoulder and neck.”
“While it appears that there may be a genuine link between heavy phone use, bad posture and musculoskeletal pain, another discovery during my investigations gave me cause for concern. Dean Fishman, a chiropractor and founder of the Text Neck Institute, has trademarked the name, describing text neck as a ‘global epidemic’. Interestingly, for £1.91 on the Android Market, the Text Neck Institute can sell you an app which ‘helps alert users of a posture problem while texting or playing games on Android mobile phones’. While I myself am partial to sending the odd text, I’ll wait with interest to see whether further research can clearly separate fact from hype before putting my hand in my pocket.”
“I recently bought a Breo watch for £10 on a plane, because my regular watch broke on holiday. The advertising for the Breo Black Watch in British Airways and other in-flight shopping magazines describes it as "Comfortable on the wrist, this watch is made from tourmaline – a naturally occurring mineral said to be beneficial for the health – improving concentration, sleep, vitality and mood".”
“I emailed Breo and asked them “where is the tourmaline in this watch, and could they tell me what the evidence is that tourmaline has any effect on sleep, vitality and mood”.”
“I received a reply from the ‘Warehouse Administrator’ at Breo, and unfortunately she did not really answer my question. A quick bit of googling showed she had copied most of her response verbatim from an internet site, ‘globalhealingcenter.com’. She told me “In some of the Breo watches, there are indeed traces of the mineral Tourmaline” and stated that “Tourmaline gemstone is a semi-precious mineral stone well known for its incredible ability to aid in the detoxification process of the human body.””
“I could write back to her with a critique of the paragraph she sent me, but I fear it will not get me any further in my hunt for evidence!”
“A recent article in the Sun claimed that Britain is Europe’s windiest country. The article reported that an advert from Scottish ice cream firm Mackies claimed this and the Advertising Standards Authority backed the claim saying 'we were advised by the Met Office that the UK was the windiest country in Europe'. So, is this true?”
“I emailed Mackies and the Met Office to ask for evidence for the claim. The Met Office informed me that they 'did not categorically say that Britain is Europe's windiest country, however, there is some evidence to back this up. In terms of baseline long-term averages for 'windiness', the British Isles is third, behind two areas that are predominantly open seas (North Sea and Baltic Sea). Therefore it's reasonable to draw the conclusion that the UK is one of the windiest countries in Europe.'"
“Although I received no response from Mackies, it seems that Britain really is the windiest land area in Europe.”
"On London underground advertisements, Vitabiotics claimed that taking their supplements (Wellwoman/Wellman) helped to improve athletic performance to gold-winning standard. I asked Vitabiotics for evidence to back this up. They responded by saying that it was the athletes themselves who attested the improvement with Vitabiotic supplements. For example, 400m hurdles athlete Rhys Williams said “I believe Vitabiotics products allow me to achieve optimum health. It took a few weeks, but I have definitely noticed the difference.” Upon further questioning, it was revealed that the athletes featured in this particular advert and on the Vitabiotics website are in fact sponsored by the company. Vitabiotics have said they are looking in
"I had seen advertisements on the London underground towards the end of 2011 for Rescue Night remedy made by Bach which claimed to “help switch off the mind from unwanted, repetitive thoughts and leads to a good night's sleep”. Due to a combination of my science education and personal experience of occasional sleep problems, I wondered what the exact biological mechanisms for “switching off the mind” would be. I emailed Bach, using the ‘Ask for Evidence’ online postcard, to ask them for the evidence behind their claims, and also about how it actually worked. The reply I received stated that “the Rescue Night product is not suitable for use in treating insomnia and it is not advertised for use in the treatment of insomnia”, and advised me to contact my Doctor for insomnia advice. This is disingenuous as in both the adverts and on their website, it clearly states that it “leads to a good night’s sleep.” No information was provided about how it worked exactly, nor any evidence of trials to back up their claims. I replied requesting both these pieces of information and a week later am awaiting their reply. I will be chasing them up on this soon."
"I saw an advertisement in which Finitro claimed that their "joint maintenance" product, Finitro Forte Plus, "keeps joints flexible; is good for strong bones; supports the lubrication of joints; helps in maintaining cartilage; (good) for the production and development of cartilage; has a soothing effect"."
"I asked Finitro to provide evidence to support these claims and any references to peer-reviewed scientific journals."
"I received a reply the following day in which their spokesperson admitted that there were no data to support the product as a whole, but that there were "plenty of studies on the Net and in encyclopaedias about each component of Finitro Forte Plus"."
"Interestingly, she did cite a reference to an abstract of a double-blind study in Science about one of the components, type II collagen, which showed it to be better than placebo in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Strangely, they do not make any claims for the treatment of RA in their advert: just the claims as listed above. I understand from the evidence they sent me that at best the other components will do you no harm."
"I received a promotional email from Wowcher advertising a bracelet containing germanium, which could supposedly improve circulation and immunity by emitting negative ions. I did not think this was possible, nor could I imagine how this would work so I emailed the manufacturer, NPB Ionbalance, asking for evidence to support their claims. They replied with links to websites which also claimed health benefits for germanium. These sites did not provide any evidence that the products work, nor did they suggest any mechanism for this. In fact two of these sites even encouraged ingestion of germanium, despite known problems with toxicity."
"Shortly afterwards, I also received promotional emails from KGB Deals (promoting the Ionic Balance band). I asked Ionic Balance for evidence to support their health claims. They replied, asking me to phone them so we could have a 'frank discussion'."
"I didn’t contact any of the companies again, but wrote about them on my blog. Ionic Balance have since had a complaint upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority. They failed to amend their advertising following the adjudication and now appear in the ASA's list of non-compliant advertisers."
"When Groupon ran a promotion for NPB Ionbalance bands, I had record numbers of visitors to my blog looking for reviews of the products. I hope that by asking for evidence and discussing my findings, I have stopped people wasting their money on these products."