Bad Science

Books, News, Words | DJ Bogtrotter | February 7, 2009 at 12:43 pm

BOOK REVIEW : “Bad Science” By Ben Goldacre

There’s been talk of a new enlightenment, and what with leaders of the free world having conversations with God, the NHS funding “alternative medicine” and the media’s misinformation helping us to stagger from one health scare to another, there’s certainly a need for us to return to the power of reason. Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”) and Christopher Hitchens (“God Is Not Great”) have been battering at the logical absurdities of religion, whilst writers such as Francis Wheen (“How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World”) have been gamely swimming against the tide of gibberish that threatens to swamp us all. And into this arena, defending the reputation of evidence based medicine, steps Ben Goldacre with “Bad Science”.

In the book there is a graph of a study that neatly represents the problem. It looks something like this:

The horizontal axis shows increasing intelligence, whilst the vertical is the results of an exam the participants took. The black line shows the actual results and, as you’d expect, the results rise with intelligence. The red line however, represents how well the participants thought they had done in the test. So, the less intelligent someone is, the worse they are at estimating their own capabilities (and the capabilities of others) and the most intelligent actually underestimate their ability, i.e the world is full of idiots who have no idea that they’re idiots & who actually think that they know better than the experts (Palin & Obama are a good illustration of the 2 extremes of this chart – can you guess who is at which end?) A more amusing representation of the problem is available here. It is the people at the left end of the chart that this book wants to protect you from.

Goldacre is a medical doctor who has been writing the “Bad Science” column in the Guardian since 2003. In this, he has been debunking various examples of pseudo-science – from unproven alternative medicine procedures to the nonsense spouted by self-appointed experts (yes, I’m looking at you, Gillian McKeith) to the more dangerous misinformation campaigns of multinational pharmaceutical companies. Now, all the various themes he’s flitted between in his column have been worked into a cogent, cohesive attack on the whole sorry state of science reporting in the media.

He begins by easily swatting aside the seemingly endless supply of alternative medicine options and their ludicrous claims. Diluting a solution to a factor of 30C (a dilution of 1 in 1,000,000,000,
000,000,000) doesn’t turn it into an effective homeopathic medicine – it turns it into water (regardless of whether you knock it with a horsehair whip or not – a crucial procedure according to homeopaths). Next up for a skewering are such self-appointed experts as “Dr” Gillian McKeith “PhD” (or to use her full medical title, Gillian McKeith). Chlorophyll does not oxygenate your blood (not unless the sun shines up your arse) and even if it did, having oxygen mix with methane in your gut is not a good idea. That’s one fart you definitely shouldn’t light. This is just one example of the many basic scientific concepts that McKeith and others have repeatedly failed to grasp. Goldacre usefully reminds us that, for their scientific sounding terms, these are still basically snake oil salesmen. A nutritionist needs no qualification to call themselves that. Anybody can call themselves a nutritionist. Anybody. (Dietitian is the job title you actually need qualifications for.) As Dara O’Briain has pointed out, it’s like letting a toothiologist look at your teeth.

Goldacre works up a head of steam as he tackles the more serious problems of how pharmeceutical companies consistently misrepresent their findings, suppress negative research & massage figures to promote whatever new drug they’re trying to sell this week. This segues into an attack on how science is reported generally and how this can lead to heath scares such as the MMR/Autism hullabaloo (which was all started by a research paper that featured only 12 children. It has been repeatedly debunked and was conducted by a doctor who was being employed by a group of parents who wanted to establish a MMR/Autism link and who has since been in front of the General Medical Council on charges of gross misconduct. And yet it stil rumbles on – see here) Goldacre is unforgiving in his pursuit of irresponsible journalists whose scientific ignorance helps to worsens the nation’s health (See here). It’s the only time in the book that he falls from his own evidence based stance as he lacerates the “humanities degree journos” for their repeated sins. He imagines the reasons for why they act like this (mainly a distrust of science based on an inability to properly understand it) without supplying any data to back up his claim.

Despite the fact that the book is a long list of the many ways in which we get duped & misled, the overall effect is empowering, as Goldacre is determined to arm you with the knowledge to help you avoid it in the future. And unlike the agrresive hectoring of the likes of Dawkins et al, he understands the appeal of alternative medicines and the reasons why intelligent people believe stupid things (a lot of it stems from our need to see patterns where they are none), and so his arguments for why we should ignore them are all the more persuasive. Usually my rule when someone presses a book into my hands whilst uttering the words “You must read this!” is that the book ends up gathering dust in the corner – I’ll find my own essential reading material thankyouverymuch. But I’m going to break my own rule & urge you to read this book. It will recharge your bullshit detector and keep you on the right side of that graph.

(More info about Ben Goldacre’s work is available here)

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  1. roundcat says:

    Hello and oh my! I would read this book, but don’t want to I am going through a faze of being irritated by book readers on tubes. Silent little bastards! How dare they ignore the hell us people with nothing to do but gaze are going through!

    I would be interested to know if there is any truth in this ‘liver flush’ deal which i have just discovered. I understand by drinking simple concotions I would be able to release massive bowel boulders of hate (or gall bladder stones and the like). Apparently the average person can release hundreds of these fucks after a good liver cleanse? Whats our Mr Smartipants Goldacre got to say about that…


    “Dr” Round A. S. A. Pound “PG Dip”

    PS I noted, when you showed me this book, he had got his Guardian buddy Brooker to endorse it for him…whose having what wool pulled over where exactly and when, exactly?

  2. roomybonce says:

    I’m all for shooting down shysters like McKeith, but this MMR deal is a different thing altogether.

    A not insubstantial number of parents reporting a swift seachange in the psychology of their child immediately proceeding the MMR is not something to be swept away with blanket charges of incompetence or ignorance. It’s wrong that reporters should play on the fears of parents by writing sensationalist, unsubstantiated shit, but I don’t think it’s a case of their ‘distrusting science due to their inability to understand it.’ If anything that’s an extremely patronising view if you’re talking about reporting that reflects parents’ primal need for some definitive medical advice on what’s best for their kids.

    Of course that advice was and is ‘give your kid MMR or it’ll mean the return of Measels as a potential killer.’ But I don’t think parents can entirely accept this ‘Good Science’ when parenting is, in itself, a massively wayward science involving educated guesses and calculated risks with the aim of reducing as near as possible to absolute zero all potential hazards to your child.

    In that sense a parent doesn’t care whether the science is Good or Bad so long as it reduces risk. That for the former educates is no doubt a great thing, but if the latter comforts and reassures then, from a journalistic point of view, who gives a shit? That’s what reporters are playing on, not some ‘distrust of science.’

    I may be talking bollocks, of course. A good review Mr Bogtrotter, and welcome to The Roomyverse.

  3. roundcat says:

    Children are cunts.

  4. roomybonce says:

    That’s definitely an alternative opinion, albeit one based on a distrust of children due on an inability to properly understand them. Perhaps.

  5. DJ Bogtrotter says:

    Roomybonce - I don’t think that it’s a case of ‘distrusting science due to their inability to understand it.’ - that’s why I criticised Goldacre for framing it in that way (it’s the book’s one flaw).
    But as the MMR case, I stand by what he (and I) said. You say “a not insubstantial number of parents” reporting a change - where did you get this figure from? Are we talking about proper research or the idea that lots of parents are reporting this because you’ve read about it in the press? When the danger (or possible danger) of something is highlighted, more people are going to be on the lookout for it and thus report suspected incidents of it. The media in Britain reported widely on the imagined dangers of MMR and then parents started confirming this with anecdotal evidence. Nowhere else in the world is MMR considered unsafe and nowhere else in the world do a substantial number of parents worry about this. Also, the parents’ concerns have not been swept under the carpet - they have been rigorously researched and no link has been found (because there isn’t one).
    I do think the parents would care whether the science that they use to inform the decisions they make about the wealthfare of their children is “good” or “bad” & whether or not it’s going to put them at risk or not. If all of them are just looking for something to comfort them, then why was the MMR scaremongering so widely embraced?
    The fact remains that the original research that the MMR scare was based on, was flawed & repeatedly shown to be so, but the press did not follow this up because they were in love with the “one lone voice against the establishment” story & continued to promote it whilst endangering the health of the nation.

  6. DJ Bogtrotter says:

    Roundcat - children are, as you so wisely put it, cunts, but when you grow old and inevitably fall into a semi-catatonic dribbling “liquid-foods-only” state caused by years of self-abuse & relentless onanism (I reckon when you’re about 55), then you’re going to need someone around to wipe your arse. So, it’s in your best interests to keep as much of today’s youth alive in the faint hope of finding someone prepared to take on such a despicable task.

  7. DJ Bogtrotter says:

    Roundcat - also, the whole point of the book is that it arms you with the abilities & confidence to make up your own mind of various remedies & advice, such as the “liver flush” - so after a little bit of research I have decided what I think about that, but I’m not telling you, you lazy twat - go figure it out for yourself
    And finally - oh yes, well known Guardian columnist has his book recommended by other well-known Guardian columnist - oh no, they’re trying to pull the wool over my eyes, it’s a conspiracy, quick tell the 9/11 commission, update the Warren report, they’re part of the shadowy elite & may already have control of your mind - ARRRRRGH!

  8. roundcat says:

    Just read this today…I figured out the liver flush thing 3 days ago and have decided to have a pop at it with some friends thus proving several things:

    1) Im not a twat
    2) I do figure things out myself
    3) Im not entirely lazy

    I never get this exageration thing, and I refer to your little 9/11 comment designed, I presume to make a mockery of my point rather than actially make a point. as far as I know Charlie Brooker is not an established friend of the ‘well known columnist’ whose name I forget, but he is a household name (now).

    People will look at the book cover say - Oh that Charlie guy likes it so maybe I will.

    Why does he like it? Does he actually like it all that much? Or is it just a ‘pop my name on the cover to get you a few more thousand sales’ technique and a bit of self publicity at the same time? Its not a conspiracy theory at all, its a publicity trick where everyone benefits - but perhaps the book buyer. Its no secret is it? Its like the few word reviews you see outside music theatres. “IT’s A HOOT!” Joe Blogs, Guardian. That sort of thing. I know that some journos aim to get their name up on the signage and I also am informed by one particular journo friend, they are often offered money to do so, and I know so coz he was so. Is that conspiracy - or fact?

    I just felt in the spirit of what the book is about - maybe its a nudge inappropriate. For me it spoils the integrity of any book. But, whatever - mock away.

  9. roundcat says:

    The day I let ‘a youth’ anywhere near my tight butt is the day after I have stabbed myself 40 times in the neck.

    Halifax insurers reckon I will live longer than 55 - hence my medium sized critical illness cover and they know better than you - so there.

  10. DJ Bogtrotter says:

    Sorry about calling you a twat. I type all this stuff with a grin on my face, but it doesn’t always come across.
    The point I was making about Goldacre is that it’s one well-known Guardian columnist thumbing another, so most people would be able to decide on their own if it’s just workplace backslapping or actually his real opinion.
    Finally, I didn’t say that you’d die at 55, just that you slip into a semi-vegetative state (I have myself pencilled in for 53).

  11. roomybonce says:

    I’m hoping for late-forties, what with my family history of Arthritis and Crone’s disease on my mother’s side, and the fact that every single male on my dad’s side has at least had a heart attack or been killed by one. It’s a sad situation, but I’m starting to eat better and cycle to work, even though any attempt at improving my fitness just sends two words buzzing round my brain: Leonard Rossitter.

    Anyhoo, all good points people, and yes DJ, you’re right about how the medical establishment has done it’s best to fully research MMR in an attempt to allay parents’ fears and every aspect of Wakefield’s woeful study has now been debunked but why, then, hasn’t that made a difference? Why are MMR take-ups still down and why are perfectly well educated mums & dads going to great lengths to source seperate jabs? It’s because they refuse to trust what they perceive to be the ever-shifting goalposts of medical science, and that’s because parenting is Witchcraft!

    You should know that, Oh Grand Wizard (not in a KKK way, I hasten to add.)

  12. DJ Bogtrotter says:

    MMR jabs are still down for a number of reasons:

    1. The thorough debunking Wakefield has not been widely reported. The same papers that splashed MMR scare stories across their front pages have been strangely quiet on the research that showed that they were talking bobbins.

    2. The “ever-shifting goalposts of medical science” often only seem that way because of how poorly reported it is (something Goldacre continually hammers on about). Papers pick up on poorly researched, sensationalist studies & report them with the same (or often more) weight as good, thorough peer-researched work, causing much confusion. The scientists themselves are not confused, as there is broad agreement on many matters, but they struggle to get this across to the public (much to their frustration) because of bad coverage & charlatans & shysters who have their own agenda to pursue.

    3. And because of ill-informed idiots like this:

    MMR vaccination has taken years to build up & has been slashed by this fiasco (down to 50% in some areas of London). Putting at risk not only the unvaccinated children, but weakening the group immunity of a whole generation of children & endangering those children who, for other medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated.

  13. roomybonce says:

    That Jeni Barnett material is dynamite. I think we should go big with this in terms of hosting the full, unsegmented rant before LBC try to pull it. This ridiculous woman needs flagging up.

  14. roomybonce says:

    Great cartoon by the way. Did you make that?

  15. DJ Bogtrotter says:

    The idiot Barnett has now deleted the post about this incident from her blog (despite saying that she wanted an open debate), but it is available here;


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