Updated: May 11
Ben Goldacre's book continues a trend that has emerged in my reading over the past couple of years: non-fiction aimed at debunking the imbecilic, the deluded and the irrational.
It started with Francis Wheen's "How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World" - a polemic about flying saucers, New Age spirituality, financial fraud (oh how we should have listened), cults, quakery and moral confusion.
Last year, I found Michael Bywater's "Big Babies: Or, Why Can't We Just Grow Up", a rant against the infantilization of the modern world; how we are treated like children who can't make their own decisions in a big big bad world. "Peanuts: make contain nuts"; "Hot Coffee: contents may be hot."
Both books are very funny; both books are thought-provoking, and tap in to the Grumpy Old Man zeitgeist. But on reflection, they're little more than accumulated anecdotes used to illustrate a series of prejudices. Very entertaining cultural criticism, but hardly analyses based on scientific principles.
'Bad Science' takes the debunking genre to a different level altogether.
Dr Ben Goldacre (a medical doctor, with a medical degree, from a recognised university - unlike many of the 'experts' he investigates) writes a column for The Guardian and runs a website collecting stories of manipulated drug trials, selective evidence, misrepresented statistics and fallacious solutions to ill-defined problems.
In doing so, Goldacre has upset many people and created a lot of enemies - many of whom are in the media itself. His biggest complaint is that most journalists and editors come from a humanities background and don't understand the scientific method generally, or evidence-based medicine specifically.
As he puts it, most science stories in the press aren't covered by scientists.
Hence, we are fed and endless stream of nonsense, presented as 'proven' treatments: detox patches; Hopi ear candles; colonic irrigation; fish oil supplements that improve GCSE results - Goldacre's book is full of analyses of the pseudoscience behind this quakery, and why intelligent people find themselves believing stupid things.
In his sights are Dr Gillian McKeith(PhD), Professor Patrick Holford, Durham Education Services, Big Pharma, MRSA and the MMR Hoax. As he demolishes each one, the reader is given a primer on the scientific method and the use and abuse of statistics. If nothing else, the book is the answer to those people who complain that "I don't know why we do half the stuff we do in maths at school. It's no use."
There's no doubt that Goldacre is a highly intelligent man; sometimes his tone - both in his writing and on-screen - is slightly smug. But we should forgive him that - because he's right.
I cannot recommend 'Bad Science' too highly. It's well researched, presents complexity with great clarity, and (in parts) very funny. At the risk of sounding like the blurb on a cheap self-help book, it will change the way you see the world. For the better.
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