Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

A book review by Bobulous.

I'll start by saying that everyone ought to read this book.

Ben Goldacre gets annoyed by charlatans and journalists invoking the word "science" to sell shoddy products and shoddy newspaper stories, when in fact there's no hint of genuine science involved. Goldacre makes it clear that real science is about laying out a theory first, and the method you will use to test that theory, and then publishing the results in full so that others can examine your data and decide for themselves whether your findings support or reject the theory. Science is not about inventing new buzzwords and referring to unpublished research to push press releases for pills and bizarre treatments.

To argue that mainstream society and media have largely opted to think of science using the latter description rather than the former, Goldacre starts off with several chapters illustrating just how eager and gullible the masses are for nonsense that wears a "sciencey" badge and promises (for a fee) everything they want to hear. Detox footbaths, Brain Gym, cosmetic formulations that claim to be better than the last, and the perennial absurdity of homeopathy. Rather than just mutter that he doesn't like these products, Goldacre discusses the evidence (or lack of evidence) supporting these products, and even tells you how you can employ a Barbie doll as a brave pioneer of scientific research. He also covers the placebo effect, and refers to published evidence to explain why it's so important to take the placebo effect into account when testing the effectiveness of a product.

Goldacre makes it clear that if people want to pay good money for products that are worthless (or at least no better than free or cheap counterparts), he's fine with that, and he makes the interesting point that people of all societies and cultures use ritual to purify and redeem themselves, and paying hand over fist for a detox footbath is no different. His annoyance is generated by the phoney pseudo-scientific claims that the products come wrapped in, because it is harmful to genuine, rigorous, published science. He also feels that it gives the public the wrong idea about what real science is, making it out to be mysterious, magical, miraculous, when in fact it is very simple to understand the findings of real science when the results are transparently published and clearly explained.

Further chapters illustrate the disconnect between real science and what is presented to the public under the label "science". Goldacre introduces us to the ways nutritionists overcomplicate simple diet advice to turn it into a marketable product. And we meet Gillian McKeith, and learn how baseless claims can win you a television show and a publishing deal, then learn of Durham Council and Equazen's omega 3 fish oil trial which was not a trial and of the huge amount of media coverage it attained. After several more chapters, Ben Goldacre finishes with a scathing chapter on how the British media ran with and relentlessly fuelled the MMR vaccine scare. As usual, Goldacre examines evidence rather than opinion, and the evidence against the media is damning.

As I said, everyone ought to read this book. I'm a cynical person, but even I was surprised at just how much falsehood there is in media stories. Someone more trusting would be genuinely shocked. And, as Ben Goldacre points out, it's ignorance of the tricks used by charlatans and journalists which allows them to continue feeding us such bullshit.