Monday, January 29, 2007

Hello Vera!

click photo to enlarge
One of the "quality" UK newspapers, "The Guardian", has a regular column called "Bad Science". Its purpose is to expose the pseudo-science that regularly occurs in the the press and elsewhere, to encourage rigour in the reporting of science-based matters, and, possibly, to encourage greater scepticism in the reader when confronted with news about science. In a world where hucksters proliferate it is a welcome dose of hard-edged analysis.

Recent targets of Ben Goldacre, the author of the column, are: the claims for the educational efficacy of fish-oil supplements allegedly shown in research backed by an education authority and the producers of the product; wonder HIV cures; pseudo-experts with few qualifications being used by journalists as "authorities"; and a demolition of a newspaper article (in the Sunday Times no less) that misrepresented some research by claiming it could make "gay sheep" straight! An article that I particularly enjoyed looked at the ideas of the "Brain Gym" enthusiasts - a group of educationalists who have managed to convince many schools and teachers in the UK of the wonderful, and very specific benefits that will flow from their programme of mental and physical exercises. It clearly demonstrated what I had always felt to be the case - that Brain Gym takes a few simple, self-evident propositions, such as taking regular breaks helps you to work better, and surrounds them with patently ridiculous mumbo-jumbo and unsubstantiated claims.

I was thinking about this as I photographed this rather odd looking aloe vera plant that grows in my kitchen. It is there because it's easy to grow, and for its alleged usefulness in healing minor burns - slice a leaf and rub the oozing gel over the burn for relief. The plant's powers have been valued for a long time, but scientific corroboration, as far as I can see, is not yet available. However, there are some indications that it works, and its use in the raw form causes no harm. What is clear, however, is that adding it to hair products and skin lotions, taking it in capsules, and swallowing expensive drinks containing the extract, is absolutely pointless! But it happens because this is the latest fad, and money is to be made with pseudo-science. My photograph was taken with a macro lens at 70mm (35mm equivalent). The plant was arranged against a dark background to show off its peculiar shape, and was extensively post processed and digitally enhanced. My camera was set to Aperture Priority (f18 at 1.3 seconds), with the ISO at 100 and -1.0EV. Oh, and for anyone wondering about the title of this piece, it is based on a silly UK TV advert!
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen