Bad Science

Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

by Ben Goldacre


Year published: U.S. edition, 2010 (earlier in UK)
Category: nonfiction; popular science

SUMMARY (from the back cover of U.S. edition):

Have you ever wondered how one day the media can assert that alcohol is bad for us and the next unashamedly run a story touting the benefits of daily alcohol consumption? Or how a drug that is pulled off the market for causing heart attacks ever got approved in the first place? How can average readers, who aren’t medical doctors or Ph.D.s in biochemistry, tell what they should be paying attention to and what’s, well, just more bullshit?

Ben Goldacre has made a point of exposing quack doctors and nutritionists, bogus credentialing programs, and biased scientific studies. He has also taken the media to task for its willingness to throw facts and proof out the window. But he’s not here just to tell you what’s wrong. Goldacre is here to teach you how to evaluate placebo effects, double-blind studies, and sample sizes, so that you can recognize bad science when you see it. You’re about to feel a whole lot better.

REVIEW (U.S. edition, 2010):

I just finished reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, and it’s the most important book I’ve read in a long time.  It’s not a thriller, it’s a nonfiction work of popular science.  But that description doesn’t do this book justice.  Bad Science has the power to change the world (for the better), if people would read it carefully and with an open mind.  It rails against the anti-science winds sweeping our culture, and more importantly, empowers ordinary people of reasonable intelligence to think like scientists and protect themselves from so much unscientific claptrap dressed up as science that is for sale, is on the Internet, and even in respectable media such as newspapers.

In fact, I believe Bad Science should be a mandatory part of all high school science curricula, or at the very least, required reading for all medical students (who in my experience are as vulnerable to pseudoscience as other people).  Heck, whoever you are, if you haven’t read this book, you need to.

Ben Goldacre is a brainy muckraker who, with acerbic wit and unassailable accuracy, attacks anti-scientific BS and clearly explains how it cloaks itself in a scientific aura, and how it’s wrong.  The beautiful thing is, you don’t have to be a scientist or even a particularly scientifically literate person to understand.  Anybody with a brain can detect BS if given the proper tools.

Goldacre’s targets cover the spectrum from “quacks, hacks” to “big pharma flacks”.  He lays bare the alternative realities in which live detox treatments, ear candling, anti-aging cosmetics, homeopathy, diet experts, antioxidants, pharmaceutical companies with large advertising budgets, vaccine opponents, and most frightening of all, people who oppose antiretroviral therapy for AIDS and argue that HIV does not cause this disease.

In my opinion, the author is utterly fair in his arguments.  But he is not always nice.  (Is there a reason why he should be?)  Ben Goldacre is my new hero, slaying dragons of ignorance and going head-to-head in intellectual combat with some of the most hysterically irrational elements in society today.

Along the way as you read this entertaining book, you’ll learn what you need to know about clinical trials, about the power and limitations of statistics, and about how to think critically, to become a little Ben Goldacre yourself.

My favorite quote from the book is one of the best science quotes of all time:

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.

My favorite illustration of a key point about why we should not trust our “gut” instincts in certain matters:

Imagine there are 23 people in a room.  What is the chance that two of them celebrate their birthday on the same date?  1 in 2.

To get a flavor for what Ben Goldacre does, visit his website BadScience.net.  He is a journalist based in Great Britain and writes a regular column called Bad Science in The Guardian.  Or just go buy the book now.  You won’t regret it.

An aside from the book that I just have to share:
As Ben Goldacre points out several times himself, truth is far more interesting than the fictions humans sometimes weave around it.  Case in point: the placebo effect.  Goldacre presents fascinating evidence for what most of us have heard: that “sugar pills” can make you feel better, and sometimes even get better in fact.  In the context of debunking homeopathy, Goldacre recognizes that homeopathy sometimes “works”–not as well as aspirin or antibiotics, of course–but in the sense that the treatment results in the patient feeling better, the alternative medicine method is “effective.”  This is amazing, if you think about it.  Our minds have the power to take something biochemically meaningless–an infinitely diluted flask of water, for example–and within the context of a caring, concerned health care provider and a believing patient, the water takes on healing properties.  Why dress it up with unscientific nonsense about “like cures like” and foolishness about water molecules having “memory”?  Why not embrace the truth–the placebo effect is real–and pursue the true scientific basis for this phenomenon?

If you like this book, you might enjoy:
Denialism
by Michael Specter; Stiff by Mary Roach