Bad Science: A review

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. (2009)  Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York.

Goldacre opens his Bad Science book with the promise that by the end you’ll be able to win any science-y argument you choose (from MMR vaccines to cancer preventing super vegetables).

This is a big ask, too big perhaps? After a total of 6.5 years of post-graduate, research based study (and counting) I am not able to achieve this.

Paradoxically given the level of understanding of the scientific method in the general population, he has a point.  When the standard is so low, a crash test in these topics will put you well ahead of the game.  Especially the game played by many celebrity “experts” or over passionate (and mildly drunk) dinner companions.  One of the so-called “experts” Goldacre takes a serious swipe at got her PhD off the internet.  To prove his point Goldacre got one for his dead cat.  I shit you not.

Bad Science covers some great science basics such as: what is a controlled experiment, the importance of blinding, randomization, the placebo effect, causation (does the rooster cause the sun to rise?), confounding variables, what is a meta-analysis and much more.  He builds these explanations into the text so it doesn’t read like a dry methods 101 text book.

Perhaps more importantly Goldacre helps the lay person spot the tricks which snake oil sales people use to make their wares sound super science-y.  A classic one being extrapolation gone mad.  For example taking a something that happens to a certain cell in laboratory and extrapolating the shit out of it.  He sums the insanity of this logic nicely by reminding the reader that fairy liquid will kill cells in a test tube – but that doesn’t mean it might be the next cancer wonder drug. Huh? Huh?

Another classic trick of the pseudoscience quacks is cherry-picking.  There are thousands-upon-thousands of articles published each year.  Sadly the quality varies.  Hence if you want to tell a ‘science’ backed story that supports your mad ideas, or latest product to market – no problem you can almost certainly build most any case about most anything.   As long as you manage to avoid a rigorous review from anyone that knows much about anything science-y.  Which tragically appears to be almost no-one.

Do I have criticisms of Bad Science? Sure.  Accusing homeopaths/nutritionists of being idiots, is not helping get them onside.  The accusation is especially misplaced when humans are not logical. Our beliefs are not driven by logic or, as it happens, intelligence.  I seem to remember something about smart folks being worse at drawing dumb conclusions – ouch!

However, Goldacre is nothing if not a man of equality – so big pharma gets a beating too.  He does warn that just because big pharma are bad – don’t be childish and illogical (there goes the attacking again) and make that mean homeopathy is great and vaccinations cause autism.

Regardless of where you stand on these and other issues; if you are going to enter into any debates on anything involving science you should read this book.  I would go further and say all high school students (and their parents) should read this book and then talk about it – with much vigor and enthusiasm over their paleo, vegan, traditional or whatever meal.

As for me, I am going to trust Goldacre ahead of Gwyneth Paltrow’s opinion in a heartbeat on all and any matters of science.  However I shall endeavour to be a bit more careful about how I put my thoughts across at parties full of Gwyneth lovers (who haven’t heard of Goldacre – he is not nearly so pretty, rich or famous).  If stuck in such a nightmare situation, I will revert to Goldacres catch phrase.

… “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”… 

This is also, rather conveniently, the title of one of his other books.  Simply proving you don’t need to be a quack to sell your wares.



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