Bad Science


I’ve had the paperback of this for some time, but never got around to more than the first few pages (I seem to start a lot of books which now lay abandoned around the house) and so bought it as an audiobook.  Even then getting through it seemed to take a long time.

I believe in Goldacre’s aim, which is to highlight the poor reporting of science stories in the media and draw attention to the lack of evidence behind many of the claims made by supposed ‘health professionals’ and the media alike (who are too often taken in by these ‘health professionals’).  It’s a noble aim that has been carried out in his column for The Guardian and he has a whole website dedicated to debunking quackery.

This book, though, may not be his finest hour.  While it starts off amusing (and informative) enough (and not a little Dave Gormanesque in style) it descends into what seems like non-stop-ranting about some of Goldacre’s pet hates, which include everything from homeopathy, to nutritionists (a non-restricted term, anyone can claim to be one), to Brain Gym, via MRSA and MMR and includes a couple of chapters on people such as Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford (I have left off their titles as Goldacre points out they don’t really warrant them, Goldacre’s dead cat has some qualifications in common with McKeith, for example).

In the end it seems to drop into repetitive lambasting that highlights the media is lazy, doesn’t do any fact checking and is quite willing to print any press release they’re handed, doubly so if it provides a juicy headline.  He points out how media savvy ‘experts’ and companies play the game to get us to believe them, because once it’s in the press, we all seem to believe it.  In short, it’s a book that could have done with a lot more editing.

What he doesn’t do, however, is provide you with an easy way to defend yourself against the sort of rubbish the media spouts when it comes to science.  Most of his research to disprove the claims involved what sounds like a lot of digging through medical journals and papers and interviews.  Most of us can’t manage that when scanning an article at lunch or hearing a news story on the radio while eating our breakfast.  I’m still not sure about the various control-grouped, placebo-tested, randomised methods needed to produce statistically significant results (or how to figure that out from raw data).

What he doesn’t seem to be doing is calling for legislation that any scientific claims need to be backed up with evidence.  I would say we could use something like the Advertising Standard Agency, but as there already is a Press Complaints Commission, which should be responsible for this, self-regulation clearly isn’t working!

It’s not a total waste, however, it definitely has made me more critical when reading/watching/hearing a science-related story.  I’m now looking for any signs of supporting evidence and I’ve pretty much adopted the stance of disbelief until further proven.  But then I was fairly switched on before, so I wasn’t the hardest sell.  How do you convince the millions of others who do still believe the press?

As I said, due to the repetition and endless soap-boxing, the book just seems to drag.  Maybe I could suggest a ‘lite’ version.  Cut it down to probably 25% of the size, add in some more pictures and I think the book would be able to reach a wider audience (how about a kids version?) and therefore have a greater impact.  Otherwise, while a thoughtful read, you can probably abandon it after three or four chapters and not really miss much.  If you decide to stay the distance, be prepared for a monotonous affair.

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This was an copy of the book

Reviewed: 10th January 2012