Bad ScienceBooks, 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)