Friday, 3 February 2012

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre is a doctor, psychiatrist and science writer. He writes a regular column for The Guardian newspaper, also called “Bad Science”. You can read it for free each week on the newspaper’s website. His book, “Bad Science” is one of the non-fiction bestsellers for some time now.

In part, the purpose of the book is to give the reader “tools to win or understand arguments” and consider the evidence-base behind things we read and hear. It takes health and nutrition as its focus—that’s what Ben Goldacre works with on a daily basis—but the key messages of the book apply across science in general. So much so, that I require all my first year tutees (doing Conservation Biology) to read the book!

He starts by pointing out all the quackery in modern-day society and our apparent desperation for quick solutions to complex problems. From “detoxifying” ear candles to school classes, Goldacre argues that we cannot give pseudo-scientific nonsense credibility or real harm can occur (for example, with HIV in South Africa, or the MMR vaccine in Britain).

Most people are aware of the big money behind pharmaceutical companies, but many seem to be unaware of similar profits being made by “alternative medicine” companies. Both groups market their products and can misrepresent scientific evidence in their claims. You may wonder why it is such a good thing to wash your hair with fruit sugars, whether anti-aging creams really work, and why diluting harmful chemicals down to the point where they are no longer present and bashing the bottle on a leather cushion makes an effective remedy for illness.

The media don’t help either. By trivialising science as scary, hopeful or wacky, journalists sell more papers, but don’t add much light to what’s really going on. And then some so-called “experts” have a habit of suing scientists or journalists who questions their claims, resulting in expensive court cases. In fact, One of the chapters in this book was left out of the first edition because of such a court case. That chapter is now in the book, so you can guess who won, and the law is currently being revised to avoid these kinds of problems.

Where’s the evidence for any of these claims? And how do we get it? The way good science works, and the way clever people can be fooled by their own instincts, are covered nicely in the book. The commonest tricks used by companies and the media to mislead the public are exposed,

In short, Goldacre makes the case that the subject matter of the book should be taught to schoolkids and that scientists should never put up with pseudoscience and should stand up for the proper investigation of the facts.

I like this book a lot. It is well-written, in a style that almost all of my students have found engaging, and gets across some complex issues without any pain. I recommend it to all of you. Once you’ve read it, sit back for a while and see if you can think of parallels in the kind of science you are interested in.

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