* Prices may differ from that shown
Do you believe the doctor or the prescribed medicine works when he or she tells you 'that it might get
worse before it gets better'? Do you find yourself interested in the average Daily Mail headline? If so then you need to educate yourself and read this book!
Dr Ben Goldacre is a doctor and science writer with a column in the Guardian newspaper and this book is his diatribe against the misuse of scientific experimentation, statistics and reporting. He sets out to de-bunk the nonsense that increasingly infiltrates modern life and succeeds in an often hilarious, always logical and intelligent manner.
I am a very mathematically minded and logical person. Among my biggest frustrations is hearing people talking about statistics and not grasping what they mean and usually jumping to incorrect conclusions about things as a result. The author manages to articulate this in a much more eloquent manner than I can and his thoughts on nutritionalists, detox fads and products that have been 'clinically proven' by the manufacturers own scientists are particularly scathing.
A particular highlight is his attack on 'Dr Gillian McKeith PhD' and her fellow nutritionalists. He decided to show the ludicrous nature of her expertise by purchasing a degree from the same institution in the name of his dead pet for $60 over the internet!
If you want to hear a sane voice amongst the deluge of 'expert opinion' and rip-off remedies then this book is for you.
*This review is my own although I may post it elsewhere.
"Bad Science" is a modern classic of scientific sceptical movement. Its importance and influence easily rank it alongside the defining works of Carl Sagan, Martin Gardener, James Randi, Michael Shermer, David Aaronvitch, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Carol Tavris, Paul Kurtz, Sam Harris and Phil Plait. My rather unscientific mind put it on my "to read" list for way too long. As I learnt more about the scientific method and critical thinking from subjects I was more comfortable with like history or the social sciences, I slowly made my way to Goldacre's book with trepidation.
As it turns out, and according to Goldacre, this is the problem. The general public are confused by science and therefore untrusting of it, which makes them more susceptible to pseudoscience, quackery and manipulation on a grand scale. Whether it is buying ineffective "natural" cures from nutritionist quacks to over-priced and under-tested drugs from devious pharmaceutical companies, Ben Goldacre fears that an ignorant public is being duped and the consequences can be catastrophic.
As you might have guessed by now, the science of the book is generally focused on the medical and healthcare industries. The roots of the book and its title come from a regular column the author wrote and still writes for the left-leaning "Guardian" newspaper, where he wrote from the perspective of a full-time NHS doctor. His contentious column has more then ruffled enough feathers in the respective industries he investigates and criticizes. "Bad Science" the book was written in 2008, when the backlash against nonsense in many forms was really kicking off and people were beginning to be called to account. At this time Andrew Wakefield was being investigated by the Medical Council for the MMR hysteria his unethical research paper caused and Goldacre had just come to the end of a lengthy court battle with vitamin pill guru Matthias Rath who was personally suing both the author and "The Guardian". Subsequently "The Doctor Will Sue You Now", which deals with Rath's history and the influence he has had on South Africa's AIDS denial, is a special bonus chapter inserted at the end of the section dealing with nutritionists in the 2009 paperback edition of the book. Since this edition has been published we've also had Simon Singh win his landmark court case against the British Chiropractic Association and the steady growth of the sceptical movement.
Many sceptical books consist of a collection of different topics, which are often grouped into sections. Goldacre is no different in this respect except that each chapter "follows a natural crescendo" starting with low scale pseudoscience building up to its more damaging end, which then moves onto another even more damaging area and so on until we see a global picture of bad education, misinformation, disinformation, victims and certain people unscrupulously making a ridiculous amount of money from their respective branches of bad science.
Having worked in academic circles and wearing a liberal socialist attitude on his sleeve, Goldacre clearly believes the key is education and from the first chapter onwards he takes on the role as the teacher. If the problem is a distrust and misunderstanding of science, then it is up to those involved in science to bring it to the people. He begins by explaining some simple experiments anyone can set up at home to bust the myths of detoxing, a craze that has come and gone since at least the days of enema, yoghurt and celibacy obsessed John Harvey Kellog. The ridiculous "Brain Gym" that has seduced many junior schools in the developed world gets the first special focus in the book.
Next the cosmetics industry gets a well-deserved kicking. It's among one of my increasing number of bugbears to see yet another commercial that bamboozles you with what Goldacre would call "sciency" stuff regarding over-priced moisturizers and shampoos. Not only do we get given simple and inexpensive instructions to make our own cosmetics or buy very cheap yet equally good alternatives to the big brands, but we also find out just how the companies get to say the rubbish they throw at us. Due to laws brought in 1990s that restricted the dosages of these ingredients, the most effective ingredients ever to be put in moisturizers now only show up as "talismanic concentrations". It goes on to decode the "sciency" sounding stuff that either means nothing or implies something that is not possible - for example that your body could or would ever need to absorb fish DNA!
This leads the author onto a far more common enemy of scepticism: the Royals favoured pseudoscience, homeopathy. However, if he is going to tread on ground worn well by his colleagues, Goldacre clearly wishes to be thorough and this is the first of his longer chapters. The result is perhaps one of the most detailed and well-researched debunkings of homeopathy I have yet read. He details its history and the supposed "logic" behind its dilution method. We then go through its troubled attempts by academics to legitimize the practice in the medical science world. A key part of homeopathy is the sugar pills commonly used by its doctors, which leads onto the fascinating nature of the placebo effect. Keeping his teaching hat on Goldacre provides a chapter explaining how the placebo effect works, why placebos are used as part of the scientific process of testing and finally why the placebo effect is so powerful.
A chapter on fashionable nonsense provides us with an introduction to Goldacre's second job, that of a journalist. He sees media representation and bad biased research in major publications to be at the root of a lot of the problems associated with bad science. This particular chapter focuses on the way the nutritionist industry has been invented and promoted by the media. Food has become an obsession with reports on either its apparent miraculous or demonic properties. Goldacre reveals how easily peddlers of fad diets, supplements and vitamin pills have become celebrities and millionaires based on pseudoscientific claptrap.
Step forward "Dr" Gillian McKeith for the next chapter, which singles her out for special treatment. McKeith is a perfect representation of the nutritionist industry. She acquired her qualification through a non-accredited university and "volunteered" to give up her title of "Dr" after pressure from academics who challenged that it was not legitimate. She has made her fortune out the diet plans, TV shows and books she has based on her flawed view of nutrition. Referencing directly from her work, Goldacre reveals ridiculous claims like somehow eating spinach and the darker leaves of plants will "oxygenate your blood". Somehow McKeith, who spends a lot of her time posing in a white coat in a laboratory or being rude to fat people on prime time TV, got the whole idea of photosynthesis mixed up in a big way.
We explore the "Durham Trials" debacle in the next chapter, where we read about the way scientific testing is seriously misrepresented. This chapter concerns a school that famously agreed to partake in trials that were to test whether the consumption of Omega-3 fish oils improved examination performance in their students. The whole process was flawed from the very beginning and elaborate example of the media's obsession with miracle pill cures. Despite Goldacre's investigation causing the headmaster involved with the whole sham trials to become seriously stressed, in the end the pill won the day. Omega-3 fish oils have become hugely popular in the supplement world, which nicely dovetails into the next chapter on Professor Patrick Holford.
Holford seems to be at the very centre of the nutritionist movement, dealing with the academic side of things. Like McKeith he has become a very wealthy man and health food stores have a lot to thank him for as more people flock to pick up untested and largely ineffective food supplements as an alternative to conventional treatments. Holford has also done a lot to promote conspiracy theories regarding mass produced food and drug companies. Among his very silly claims are that oranges no longer contain vitamin C. After this chapter we have special extra one, "The Doctor Will Sue You Now", which reveals alternative medicine's vitamin industry at its most destructive. Here we read about how South African politicians and the general public have bought into the idea that AIDS either does not exist or that the treatments offered by the western world are part of a conspiracy to kill them. From 2000 to the time of the book's second publication cases of AIDS rose from 1% of the population to 25%. On the back of this we have vitamin pill salesman extraordinaire Matthias Rath who has made a fortune selling his vitamin pills as the healthy alternative to conventional AIDS treatments. It's a shocking chapter that I offer to the next person who tells me that conspiracy theories don't cause any harm or that alternative remedies are always on the side for good.
When the subject of "Big Pharma" crops up I usually send out my conspiracy theory probe. It's a term now that is beloved of those who buy into the sort of nonsense that Holford and Rath peddle. Read most regular sceptic's writings, such as Skeptoid podcaster Brian Dunning, and you will see that whenever "Big Pharma" is being mentioned it is often in reference to some very stupid ideas about shadow industries repressing good nutritionist and holistic therapy heroes of the world. However, Goldacre is not afraid to go after them and bring them to account over the stuff that is legitimately bad. It's ironic that he has been called a stooge of "Big Pharma" on many occasions considering the criticism he has brought against for real crimes they have committed.
In fact, their industry does make even more money than the ridiculously lucrative nutritionist empire. It's no grand conspiracy of Illuminati proportions, but documented manipulation of facts and trials of certain drugs. We learn from the author just how a new drug gets tested and sold, and how the data can be distorted in order to market it effectively. Goldacre highlights one of the big problems in science. Its boom is over. It lasted for around half a century, where many amazing breakthroughs were made in medical science and healthcare. However, today it creeps at a snail's pace and the pharmaceutical industry is stuck with the problem with how to re-market essentially the same drugs. Worse still, certain treatments go criminally under-promoted because they cannot be patented.
The next five chapters focus on the biggest culprits in the spreading of bad information, anti-science ideas, conspiracy theories and mass hysteria: the media. He looks at how scientists with no media skills are often portrayed as bland villains in corduroy when compared to the renegade "experts" who are championed by newspapers and television. There is a chapter on how bad statistics are used and manipulated to make a good story and then we look at two big media hoaxes: MRSA and MMR. Both of these caused health scare hysteria on a grand scale resulting in real problems for the general public.
"Bad Science" is a reference book that every household should own. Science is a tough subject, especially for those who have no direct interest in the way it works. However, it is very much a part of our lives and the key to our progress. Unfortunately ignorance of it has very real consequences and this is never more evident than when we are discussing health and medical issues. Ben Goldacre does a fine job explaining everything in lay terms - particularly good for science dummies like me - and yet writing in a mature manner about very serious topics. He has a great sense of humour that is nicely balanced with deep research both as a man of science and as an investigative journalist. Given the appalling lack of research many journalist exhibit - and I urge you to read Dan Gardner's "Risk" for more evidence on this issue. Goldacre seemed to have carefully picked his subject matter, steering away from buffoonery typically targeted by his fellow sceptics. This means we don't go over too much common ground already trodden by other sceptical writers. Goldacre chooses to go for footnotes and endnotes for his referencing. His endnotes, as he tells us, have been kept to a minimum in order to keep the book entertaining. However, there is enough contained throughout the book in order for a reader follow up. Furthermore, it is all linked into his website, which I also recommend.
I am a Science teacher myself, so I thought that this was the sort of book that I ought to be reading. I have also heard rave reviews of it from colleagues and couldn't wait any longer, so I purchased the book new off amazon for £4, a good price for a new book that has only been out a year and a half. Ben Goldacre is the author, and having trained as a doctor himself he has a certain amount of credibility. The book focuses on all sorts of ways in which the public has been conned into believing farcical scientific claims in all walks of life, such as the notorious brain gym that has found its way into many of our schools, the strange ways of homeopathy, the downright devilish workings of the pharmaceutical industry (we all knew they weren't exactly angels, but this book really shows what nasty stuff they are made of), and many more. It is a really interesting read that is relevant to everyone, on a number of occasions I found myself thinking 'I never knew that', and realising that I too had been tricked into believing a lie.
Ben Goldacre's supposed aim in this book is to educate the public into the way that Science works, so that they are better able to judge for themselves the legitimacy of people's claims. This is worthwhile, although if you have studied a Science degree or anything similar, some of what he says does come across as a little bit patronising, and maybe not immediately relevant. However, the book is extremely revealing, funny, well written and one that everyone could benefit from picking up. If everyone listened to Goldacre then consumer ignorance might be a thing of the past, and we would all make informed decisions, maybe understanding a little more about how Science works, and how to distinguish between 'good science' and 'bad science'.
I don't read much non-fiction but this book really caught my eye as I had read a few of Ben Goldacre's articles in newspapers and had found them interesting. I was also drawn in by the tempting teaser on the front cover informing me that this updated edition included a new, previously unpublishable chapter. Well that sounded intriguing so I bought the book and took it away to read on my recent holiday.
The last time I studied science was at school, but I like to think I am able to think logically and rationally. However it can be hard for anybody with my level of knowledge to see through the marketing, the woolly science and the downright scary reporting that sometimes accompanies science stories.
The aim of this book is to debunk and expose some recent popular 'sciences' such as homeopathy, 'brain gym' for children, the MMR hoax and nutritionists. Goldacre aims to take a reader unfamiliar with scientific method and educate and inform them so that in the future they are better equipped to understand the reporting of science in the media and to make better decisions regarding how they take care of themselves.
I found the style of writing to be very clear and easy to follow, you don't need to have any prior knowledge of scientific methods or terminology to read this book, but if you didn't when you started it, then by the time you've finished it you'll know a lot more and feel a lot more confident in discussing the kind of issues that the book raises. You'll also never read a science story in a newspaper in quite the same way again!
All of the author's points are backed up with evidence from scientific studies or trials and he provides references to all of them so if you wanted to check up on him you'd be able to.
Its clear from Goldacre's writing that he is truly passionate about 'good' science and wants the public to be well informed and not so vulnerable to marketing and exploitation. These are noble aims and I admire him for them, however I feel he was a bit unnecessarily cruel about those of us who've studied or worked in the humanities, we aren't all artsy fartsy types getting acupuncture every 5 minutes and singing to crystals!
I read this book in 2 days, barely putting it down, but if you don't have the time to devote to that, its easy to read a chapter at a time and have a break in between chapters. They stand alone well but I wouldn't recommend reading them out of order because the author occasionally references previous points.
The 'previously unpublished' chapter is truly shocking and concerns the companies and individuals who are profiting from the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Although reading this book has changed my outlook on a few things and has made me feel more aware and understanding of scientific issues, it is this chapter that has really stayed with me.
I feel I should point out that Ben Goldacre is not scathing of the people who choose to use homeopathy and alternative treatments. He understand the impulse and is fascinated by the proven placebo effect, instead he rails against those who make profits by misleading and manipulating people. His attitude is, if you want to take a sugar pill or a drop of water, that's fine, but you deserve to know that it is in fact just a sugar pill or a drop of water with no proven effects.
To begin with I have to say that this book is long overdue. It tackles in one sweep the abuses of science that abound in our culture today using a range of well chosen examples, and attempts to break down the barrier between 'science' and things which pretend to be science and everyone else. Even the word 'science' in the title may put some people of instinctively, but the book assumes no particular prior knowledge and should be read by everyone, especially those slightly averse to science.
One of the first things you will notice is that it is very readable, and like the best science writers Ben Goldacre has managed to steer a line between clearness and entertainment and genuine information.
I hadn't read his column before so a lot of it was new to me, and I later started to pick up his regular Guardian column of the same name and had a look at his blog which, it is worth pointing out, is consistently valuable and erudite, a continuation of this book rather than a personal vent.
This book is characteristic a spate of books that have been written fairly recently about similar themes. It reminded me of a section in Derren Brown's 'Tricks of the Mind', and I would also recommend to people who are interested 'Irrationality' by Stuart Sutherland, which is more general but equally informative.
If anything, I think Mr Goldacre can be too soft at times on the irrational and deluded people that he confronts, especially in the irresponsibility of the media, who really should know better, but of course this only makes the book more effective, as he can dismantle all of their arguments simply and scientifically without having to resort to anger or invective.
One of the best sections is that on statistics, which people usually immediately ignore, or listen to them in a daze. Mr Goldacre explains wonderfully clearly all the common pitfalls in understanding, and also ways that they can be dressed up to create sensational headlines. Reading this book will ensure you are much better armed against outrageous claims. Other highlights are the very satisfying destructions of Homeopathy and Gillian McKeith, where he exposes their bizarre claims with an expert eye.
Overall, 'Bad Science' makes for wonderfully refreshing reading and approached throughout with a fantastic mixture of precise logic and wit. The only shame is that such a sensible book needed to be written in the first place!
Ben Goldacre cuts through the BS of media coverage of many 'break through' science stories. He tears apart these breakthroughs by showing the rubbish methods involved to obtain the data.
Obviously there's some pretty sciencey stuff going on in his explanations, especially when dealing with research methods - the good and bad methods to use when experimenting. However, Dr Ben Goldacre presents these methods in such lay terms that you follow them easily, which proves a point he makes throughout the entire book: the public can understand complex issues when explained correctly. Instead of the media saying 'science told us this...' the media can explain what the scientist was doing and how. By doing this, the public can see through the emotive BS that gets placed around it.
For example: a newspaper in their 'science' section will say something like 'the increase in children taking drugs in our schools, has risen by 50%'. Shocking. Disgraceful. BUT, when the numbers are looked at funny things happen. This is a true study so here's some facts: the study was of 9000 pupils (sic). In 2004 1.4% admitted to taking drugs. In 2005 another sample of 9000 pupils were gathered. 1.9% of pupils admitted to taking drugs. The media rounded these figures to 1% and 2%, ergo an increase in 50%, for 2 is double 1.
Now I wont go into the problems of how do you gather a sample, the fact that nearly all research has a 5% above or below anomaly count (that is to say, results are expected to go 5% above or below the mean due to anomalies in studying anything - in a barrel of a million blue marbles with 20 reds, it can happen I pull out 4 reds in a row out of 20 marbles and claim 1 in 5 marbles of the barrel are red). Put this to the school study, that increase of 0.5% was going to be expected and could of just as likely gone either way.
Basically, if you want the truth in easy to understand ways, then read this book. It should be on the curriculum in schools. The danger with 'bad science' is when it starts creeping in to the world and causing deaths - which it has (Vitamin C was said to be better than antiretroviral drugs in battling HIV - this BS has killed well over a million people who have believed it), and starts being taught as an actual science.
There are BSc in Alternative Therapies.
(I do partially take to heart his attack on Humanities graduates though...I am one)
Not being in any way scientifically inclined, I was slightly concerned that this book might be beyond me - however I was pleasantly surprised. Ben Goldacre has deliberately aimed his work at the average Joe, specifcially to ensure that ordinary members of the public are NOT duped by pseudo-scientists using complex vocabularly to ensure we don't question their assertions (and assertions he rigorously and ruthlessly proves them to be). He clearly and methodically takes some very common themes - detox, placebos, "Dr" Gillian McKeith, and then shows us how he has deconstructed their arguments and claims. Although he doesn't clutter the book with long references, his sources are methodically detailed and indeed he encourages the reader to go and read more, to ensure that he is being truthful in his conclusions. This book really brought home to me how any one of us - well educated or not - can be easily fooled by the spin which media "experts" put on certain products or regimes. I must confess that the chapter on detox left me slightly hanging my head in shame as I have tried so many of those products! Never again...
The only slight negative for me is that about halfway through the book I sort of thought "I get it, stop banging on about the same points"! I understand why he does, but it does become a little vitriolic in places and potentially could have been more to the point whilst still getting across his important and well-argued message.
I'd recommend this highly, particularly for detox product fans such as I used to be!
Ms Larsbaby pointed me in the direction of this book which a friend of hers had read. The point of the book seemed to be to debunk myths around science and in particular the "pseudo-science" peddled by groups as diverse as nutritionists and journalists. Famous health stories would be examined in detail and taken apart where appropriate. My interest piqued, I had a look to see what all the fuss was about.
BRAIN GYMS, HOMEOPATHY AND NUTRITION
The author's targets in the book for peddlers of bad science are many and varied. He highlights some well known cases to highlight his point, though is at pains to point out that many other people are just as bad.
The book examines the Brain Gym initiative, promoted in schools as a way to improve children's results, but what is it actually based on? The findings of the author are both surprising and disturbing.
The book is very sceptical of complimentary & alternative medicine (CAM), particularly homeopathy, which the author claims is all based on expensive pills that are effectively placebos with trace element amounts of the supposed healing agent. It's interesting to read about the origins of homeopathy and how it's mushroomed into a huge industry; one that claims to be "alternative" to the conventional medicine of the big pharmaceutical companies and yet a large pill popping industry in it's own right.
He also has a go at nutritionists, though this seems to be more aimed at ones claiming things like turmeric can help prevent cause cancer, using spurious information from clinical trials. The concept of "cherry picking" is introduced to us, where scientific data is made to look credible by just considering results of trials that support the argument rather than the overall statistical data. In both cases it's stated that, in itself the "placeco" affect of the ritual and ceremony around such practices can actually help heal for reasons not always explicable by medical science. This is an interesting point, as if true it turns on its head the contention from homeopathic doctors that their pills cure; it might be more that the care and attention given by the physician to the patient is a healing factor in itself. This is certainly a factor acknowledged by conventional medicine, where doctors who listen and show interest can have a better effect on recovery than one with a purely professional, impersonal line of questioning and care.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU UNCRITICALLY BELIEVE
One chapter I particularly enjoyed is devoted to Dr Gillian McKeith of "You Are What You Eat" fame. Or, as the book put it, to give her her full medical title : Gillian McKeith. It's interesting to note that "dietician" is a protected medical name whereas "nutritionist" is not, and hence I could call myself one if I so chose. A recent conversation with a dietician confirmed what the book has to say on the odious mad poo woman; that's she has no medical expertise to preach from, and a lot of her spiel is made up of bullying theatrics, which makes great television but is not based on scientific reality. Fan or detractor will find this chapter of great interest. Especially when you find out that the author's dead cat gained the same internet membership of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants as her!
PROVE YOUR CLAIMS
The book also aims a swipe at a Professor who is quite influential in the media and yet makes some remarkable claims. A claim that vitamin C is better than the drug AZT for treating AIDS is apparently based on a lab study where chemical in a dish reacted in a certain way to vitamin C; no mention there of AIDS of AZT you will note. It's interesting to see how legitimate research can be distorted and the findings presented in an exaggerated and unrepresentative way which quite frankly scares the life out of me; how can we trust any of the claims made by quacks and charlatans that are media darlings? It really makes you think. These people can make any claims up, along with false claims of academic qualification, and you have to really examine these claims to expose them. This guy even has a nutrition college which can be used as a foundation year towards a BSc degree at the University of Luton! Which was panned by the university's inspector as you will discover more about if you read the book.
We also see how a "trial" in Durham of schoolchildren taking doses of fish oil tablets which was reported as showing an improvement in children's GCSE results did nothing of the sort, and how the role of an all too complicit media distorted our perception of this, even to this day. Sure, there was an improvement, but the fish oil tablet only told part of the story. We see how expectation and natural trends can also play a part in these kinds of activities, which is truly fascinating and requires a lot of thought to get your head around the ideas presented. This is a chapter those of you who are parents will want to examine in great detail.
There is a quite remarkable chapter on how AIDS treatment in South Africa has been compromised both by the stance of the government and the intervention of an alternative therapist peddling his vitamin pills are not only a viable alternative to AZT, but claiming that conventional drugs actually harm the patient. I shall not name this chap as; reading the book you will see what amount of litigation he has imposed previously on his critics in medicine and the media.
The book also examines the role of media in reporting science stories, and you will be positively amazed when you hear the full story, and lack of evidence, behind the MMR autism scare from a few years back. This really is something else you want to read if you're a parent. One of the author's assertions is that the media get science stories so wrong because dedicated science correspondents are often ignored when it comes to reporting big stories, possibly deliberately as they'd not be prone to sensationalise stories with a dubious scientific basis. It's also instructive to learn how you can be misled by the way statistics are given. For example, which is scarier, something which has a 2% chance of causing a heart attack rather than 1% - or has double the chance of causing a heart attack? It's really thought provoking.
Add to the mix the stories of how drug companies distort results of trials by such ruses as deliberately giving the wrong dose of a competitors treatment in order to make theirs look better. Or how a dodgy lab was behind much of the MSRA scares. There is much much more in this book which has acted as something of a wake up call to me.
This is a fascinating read which really makes you think, and as such is best tackled in short doses. It is particularly mentally taxing towards the end but well worth ploughing through. If I read more than a chapter at a time my mind would start to frazzle on the edge of intellectual breakdown, or maybe I'm just dense. The authors viewpoint is certainly controversial and the contents may upset many people's beliefs, but I think this is essential reading to make you at least question what the motivation is of people trying to sell you hope in their miracle cures for all ills. It's amazing how far these people will go to protect their fakery in a court of law; truly, there is justice for those who can afford it. You will also learn how mind sometimes does conquer over matter but not in a way you expect. The important lesson seems to be that scientific knowledge needs to be checked carefully and not taken at face value when reported in the press. Of course this may well be the case for the data presented in the book as much as anything, but full references are provided for the more curious or sceptical.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Ben Goldacre is an NHS doctor and author of the "Bad Science" column in the Guardian. You might want to read this if you found this interesting, along with his blog:
Have you ever read the newspaper health pages and wondered where they got the statistics from that doing X doubles your risk of cancer? Have you ever been bamboozled by the claims of the cosmetics industry about their magic lotions with their unpronounceable sciency sounding formulas and their claims to give you eternally youthful skin? Perhaps you are too scared to give your baby the MMR jab because you don't want to risk them becoming autistic. The books "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre delves behind these headlines to tell the truth about these issues and explain to the general public how bad science has invaded their everyday life.
Ben Goldacre is a doctor and journalist with a regular column in the Guardian newspaper and runs a website also named "Bad Science" where, with the help of an army of regular readers, he highlights bad scientific practice and reporting and challenges the people who mislead us with bogus claims.
There are many charlatans out there using poor science to back up their crackpot ideas; perhaps the best known con artist is the famous "Dr" Gillian Mckeith who is fond of digging around the in the nations poo and sells supplements such as Horny Goat Weed to an unsuspecting public. Goldacre pulls apart the claims of Mckeith and the unregulated nutritionists as well as revealing the science, or lack of it, behind alternative treatments like homeopathy or ear candling. Mckeith and her bogus qualifications are an easy target for someone of Goldacre's calibre with him famously buying the same PhD that Mckeith holds for his dead cat; most of us do not have the same level of scientific literacy as Goldacre and a I admire his quest to get accurate information into the popular media.
It's not just us dunces on the street who fall for pseudoscience either with education departments endorsing the rather dubious brain gym where kids are being taught that they can directly hydrate their brain through the roof of their mouth. The Eye-Q supplement, where a flawed experiment showed that it helped kids pass their GCSE exams, is another example with many parents who wanted to give their kids a helping hand persuaded to spend a fortune on expensive fish oils based on bad science endorsed by educationalists.
The most shocking portion of the book discussed Aids in South Africa where a vitamin pill peddler managed to convince the South African government and many citizens that taking anti retroviral drugs for AIDS was like pumping poison into your system and that the cure was the vitamin pills that his company made. These dangerous claims led to the death of thousands of people. It's not just Daily Mail readers who are prone to believing nonsense then!
It is through the media that most of us are fed bad science, whether that is the story that cocaine use in kids has spiralled out of control or that eating acai berries will stop you from getting cancer. It was really interesting reading how stories come into print and how scientifically illiterate most journalists are and how stories are often dressed up with vaguely scientific sounding terms with quotes from paid experts to make them sound more believable.
Goldacre attempts to write with the layperson in mind and for the most part the book is engaging and easy to follow but even though I have some grounding in science and statistics I found the book was really hard going at times with the complex statistical analysis of medical data in particular being a bit of a turn off. I'll confess that statistics has never been my strong point but I felt that portions of the book were written with the medical profession in mind rather than Joe Public who does not really care about attributional bias or data dredging and just wants the truth in plain and simple language. Medical matters do dominate the book but there are also some really fascinating looks at popular culture and the psychology of heath scares in there.
What "Bad Science" does not do is give definitive answers to the many questions it raises; Goldacre will not demand that you immunise your child or that you stop taking the herbal remedy that you swear by. What it does do is give you the tools that you need to question the pseudoscientific claims that you will come across in your everyday life and give you the confidence to articulate your doubts which makes it a brilliant read for people with enquiring minds.
Ben Goldacre is a (medical) doctor who spends a fair chunk of his time - via newspaper columns, website, this book and other media - challenging and/or rubbishing what he terms 'Bad Science'.
In this book he explores specific examples of the dissemination of bad science by looking at such recent media storms as the MRSA scare and MMR jab controversy, dodgy individuals like Gillian McKeith, industries and therapies propogating scientific truths/half-truths/rubbish such as homeopathy, beauty and cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.
He delves into each of these, exposing the different ways in which we can be fooled. Sometimes this is plain deception, e.g. with individuals purporting to be experts publicising misleading or simply made-up qualifications to give credence to their unproven pronouncements on nutrition.
Elsewhere, he looks in detail at the quality, or lack thereof, of clinical trials methodology and results. This may sound like dry stuff but it's never done in an overly-technical way. You'll come away understanding a lot more about how results can be manipulated, or simply the way a clinical trial is designed can be so flawed that its results mean nothing!
While it's unsurprising that there are charlatans out there who get away with what they can, or are deluded enough not to see that their supporting 'evidence' is extremely weak, it is the media that Goldacre blames for the majority of our bewilderment by bad science.
Their lack of scientific understanding (with big science stories being taken away from science correspondents, and passed to features writers with little/no scientific background) contributes to a media habit of ignoring the evidence in favour of using soundbites from 'experts'. Thus stories become he said/she said affairs with no independent analysis of the evidence. Goldacre finds this lazy insulting to our intelligence - as if it's too hard for us to take in any well-presented analysis of evidence.
I hope this doesn't sound dry - because it's always interesting and relevant. I have a special interest in healthcare myself and already knew something of the way that clinical trials can be flawed and distorted. But I didn't know much about the details of the cases Goldacre describes, and sometimes it's quite horrifying how blatantly things can get distorted.
Now Goldacre is a polemicist and puts his view across strongly. He sometimes allows his opponents a small say, but has editorial control of the book so it's bound to come out in favour of his view. But then again, this paperback format does not allow for full discussion of opposing viewpoints. And, as Goldacre would say (and unlike his detractors), he's made his source data clear, so go and look at that and make the decision for yourself!
Ben Goldacre is the very outspoken mouthpiece against really rubbish claims made by modern medicine or television charlatans. He is a medical doctor and journalist with a column in the Guardian newspaper with an uncanny bullsh*t detector second to none.
I can't remember when I first came across his ways of thinking but it must have been when I was looking for an answer to Gillian McKeith, a woman that makes my neck hair stand on end, someone I find appalling to the n-th degree. Lately I have seen him voice his opinion on London's 6 o'clock news regarding LBC's Jenni Barnett and her rather stupid musings on the MMR back in January and the other week on Watchdog when he was asked what he thought about some modern detox products.
I bought the 'Bad Science' paperback when I was ordering a number of books from Amazon quite a few months back. And for the longest time I had it in the office - working a 9 to 5 job (well, 8.30 to 5.00 in my case) means I have all my internet orders sent to my work address - on my desk to read at lunch time as well as taking it home to read a little more.
Looking at Bad Science
The book is divided into 15 chapters with additional introduction and further reading and glossary at the end. Altogether my paperback version contains just under 340 pages, including glossary and references.
There is no need to read the book page by page or chapter by chapter. Just have a look and read the chapters that interest you more than others and return to the ones you missed at your leisure.
Favourite Bad Science (if there is such a thing)
The first chapter I read in the book was the one entitled 'Dr Gillian McKeith, PhD', mainly because I have a particular dislike of this woman popping up on my TV set when I least expect her (episodes like 'Super skinny v Super fat' for example). While I can avoid her in her own show, it's difficult when she suddenly pops up somewhere else and you didn't expect her.
Reading about Ms McKeith only strengthened my opinion about her, that what she says is total cotswallop and should not be taken seriously at all. Ben Goldacre went as far as to examine her credential (like, none really), her scientific experiments (again, nothing really) and her universal claims to help people. Apart from the obvious "there's one born every minute", there is also the placebo effect. Who knows why people follow her rather dubious advise but sometimes you just need a push in the right direction and she might be the one, whatever her faults are in the long run.
Another favourite chapter was about the recent controversy regarding MRS and autism. While the doctor who came up with the rubbish trials was discredited ages ago, there are still people in the media who are peddling false data that was published at the time. Ben Goldacre examines the continuing misinformation in the media regarding MMR and autism and criticizes those who continue to publish the discredited data and put children's lives at risk instead of setting the record straight.
More Bad Science
As I mentioned before, there is no need to read the book cover to cover, just dip in and out and read the bits you are interested in. Over time I managed to read most chapters.
I now know a lot more about homeopathy, detox products, how statistics can be manipulated to show whatever you want them to show. I am also surprised how much rubbish I believed only because it was in the news, something Ben Goldacre covers in the chapter 'Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things' and 'Bad Stats'.
The book has left me with a much more questioning mind than before and I will not follow the masses and try and make up my own mind.
Cure for all ills?
Bad Science will make you smile, it will make you laugh out loud but it will also make you sit back and think about what you have just read, how easily you are being taken in by false promises, how much you want to believe what the media, your doctor or the latest incarnation of a TV nutritionist tell you.
I have always taken much of homeopathic and alternative medicine with a pinch of salt. I have friends who believe whole heartedly in alternative medicine, that it can help in certain circumstances. But they also accept that conventional medicine has its place when needed. I would never belittle them for what they believe. If it helps to ease the pain or suffering, who am I to criticise?
Ben Goldacre is not without critics. After all, he is a medical doctor telling people to distrust a lot of medical claims, look twice at statistics and question everything they hear and read. His bullsh*t-ometre is on overtime when he sees someone being taken for a ride and he will research and take the person, company or research to pieces if necessary in an often humorous way.
He is a loudmouth with an agenda - an agenda to annoy the perpetrators and inform those willing to open their minds and not believe everything they read or hear but question and research to form their own opinions.
New Bad Science
There is a new version of the paperback out now - with a new cover, a new chapter has been included after Ben Goldacre is now no longer sued by a vitamin pill peddler trying to make his life and that of other critics hell. I read the missing chapter online on Ben's own website where he made it available to anyone who is interested.
Ben Goldacre's official website is http://www.badscience.net/ if you are interested. Check it out.