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Lifting the lid on bad science in the media
Bad Science - Ben Goldacre
Member Name: larsbaby
Bad Science - Ben Goldacre
Advantages: Fascinating insight into media manipulation and disinformation
Disadvantages: Hard to read at times
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:
Summary: Scary to see how easily we can me misled
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