On Saturday, the SMH

finally published Ben Hills’s report on “Unique Water” – Mysteries of the magic water man – and what a damning analysis of the phenomenon it was.

The story had been held up by internal politics at the Herald

, after the paper unaccountably allowed columnist Paul Sheehan to run a
virtual crusade for the alleged miracle water and its dodgy purveyor,
Russell Beckett. The difference between Hills’s report on Saturday and
Sheehan’s early, virtually uncritical reporting, is that Hills is an
experienced investigative journalist who knows how to check facts. And
that showed on Saturday. The sting in the tail is a killer. Writes
Hills:

There is one final curiosity. In the 4000-word article, Good Weekend

did not quote one independent scientist as either endorsing or
cautioning against Unique Water. The closest it got was Beckett’s
friend Watts, who is also a disciple of the water. Paul Sheehan says
this was because in two months’ research he could not find a scientist
who was willing to be quoted.

Well,
here are three: Dr Hayden Lloyd Davies, former dean of the faculty of
veterinary science at Sydney University, who knew Beckett as an
undergraduate: “It’s pure, unqualified bullshit. The man is genuinely
self-deluded.”

Dr Richard Gordon, medical spokesman for
Australian Skeptics, which shortlisted Unique Water for its Bent Spoon
award, named after the Israeli illusionist Uri Geller: “There is a
well-known saying: the plural of anecdote is not evidence. All
journalists should be required to read two books, How We Know What Isn’t So

by Thomas Gilovich and Why People Believe Weird Things – Pseudoscience, Superstition and other Confusions of Our Time

, by Michael Shermer. If they did there would not be so many funny articles [written].”

Dr Mark Wahlquist, world-renowned nutritionist at Monash University, interviewed on ABC TV’s Catalyst

program: “My first instinct on reading about the work of Russell
Beckett was it’s another silly story. (but now) I think that it’s worth
pursuing further’.”

On Friday, Paul Sheehan was critical of his colleague, telling
Crikey the paper was “ambushed” by Hills: “The paper did not commission
the Ben Hills story. It had no idea he was working on one,” he
complained. If Hills had waited around for the Herald

to commission a story, we’d still be in the dark about the extent of the “Miracle Water” fiasco.

Sheehan might have saved his shame, but that’s surely not what good journalism is about.

Peter Fray

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