Bad Science – The Book

[BPSDB]Book reviews are a new departure for me but since I’ve tapped Fourth Estate for a freebie copy of Ben Goldacre’s book, I’d better keep my side of the bargain and review it.

I’ll start with the one criticism I have of the book; the final sentence of the introduction which reads:-

And if, by the end, you reckon you might still disagree with me, then I offer you this: you’ll still be wrong but with a lot more panache and flair than you could possibly manage right now.”

Frankly, this grates. To me it comes across as arrogant which is a great shame as the book is anything but. It might have been best to omit it. Anyway, enough of the slightly disappointing starter and onto the meat.

The book starts with the detox industry and in particular the scams such as the Aqua Detox Foot Bath where the alleged detox process actually creates the “toxins” supposedly drawn from the body. This can be demonstrated by keeping your feet out of the bath during the “detoxification” process. The bath fills up with crap anyway. I built my own using two PP3 batteries in series for a power supply, two three inch nails as electrodes and a mug of water with a tablespoonful of salt stirred in for the bath. Within a minute it was full of greenish-brown stuff.

I have gone into detail on this point for a reason. This book is more than a “point-and-laugh” directed at the alties. It shows that with a little knowledge and thinking skill we can see through the scams and apalling media coverage of science for ourselves – and proceeds to equip us with those skills. I think the modish word is “empowering”.

Ben Goldacre goes on to analyse the claims of pill-pushers such as Patrick Holford, homeopaths, Durham County Council and the drug companies. The first two may present themselves as alternative and “holistic” but in fact their philosophy of convincing us we need pills to get through everyday life is every bit as disempowering (and based on  reductionist data) as the drug companies. There is an outline of the placebo effect and how the cultural expectations of an intervention can effect the outcome.

The last two chapters cover the MRSA hoax perpetrated by “Doctor” Chris Malyszewicz from his garden shed (remember the “Mop of Death” and similar headlines? That was him. There is MRSA in some British hospitals but these over-the-top stories stopped when Malyszewicz died in a car crash.) and the MMR debacle which demonsrated that the media are now a danger to public health.

Both these stories show  the inadequacies of modern journalism. Malyszewicz was known to “always find positives” when testing for MRSA. It never occurred to any journalist other than Ben Goldacre that the real story was not “our hospitals are plague zones” but why Malyszewicz found MRSA where real microbiologists working in real laboratories did not.

The problem is that far too many generalist journalists do not understand how science works – they think it is competing pronouncements from authority figures. They do not appear to even understand what it means for there to be evidence in support of a statement. They are also totally wedded to a narrative of “lone crusader versus the Establishment”. They used the format with Malyszewicz and ran with it in the Wakefield-MMR-autism saga long past the point where it was remotely credible. They called for “more research” but when it was done and showed that the fears were unfounded, they ignored it.

Ben Goldacre concludes by pointing out what we can do. He appears to think (probably correctly IMHO) that the print media and TV are not going to change. He suggests that we email editors and point out errors in any rubbish reporting that comes to our attention. We can report dodgy adverts to the Advertising Standards Authority. And we can blog. We can dissect bad science where we find it and publicise good science ignored by the traditional media. Newspapers and television have largely failed in reporting science. It is down to us to do what we can to remedy that failure.

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3 Responses to “Bad Science – The Book”

  1. dvnutrix Says:

    I agree about the panache crack – it probably works in person but not in print.

    The maverick loner outside the establishment is an engaging but mostly misleading and occasionally dangerous narrative that beguiles too many credulous reporters and leads to the coverage that you outline.

    It is interesting to think that individual editors and journalists might be persuaded to “do better” if people were to email them, politely, with their observations and corrections. Gary Schwitzer’s Health News Review organisation has been a successful formal way of doing that.

  2. jdc325 Says:

    “He suggests that we email editors and point out errors in any rubbish reporting that comes to our attention…”
    Hurray for activism. That Health News Review looks interesting too…

  3. The Perky Skeptic Says:

    Hooray, I just ordered my copy of Ben’s book, and I look forward to reading it! 🙂

    (It’s me, Melissa G, by the way, from the Bad Science forums… I have started blogging!) 🙂 🙂 🙂

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