by Ben Goldacre
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 2nd March 2009Another great book from my friends Steve and Ingrid: Ben Goldacre writes a weekly column (also called "Bad Science" http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/series/badscience) for the Guardian newspaper, in which he highlights examples of poor scientific trials and reporting, mainly in the area of health and medicine (Goldacre is a doctor). The book expands on this theme and allows him to go into more depth about the function of medical trials, and the relationship between the media and science which leads to sensationalist reporting of dubious results. "Bad Science" reminds me of two other books: it stands somewhere between Stuart Sutherland's very measured Irrationality, and Francis Wheen's more polemic How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.
For me the core theme of the book is how the scientific process is poorly represented by the media and (possibly as a result) poorly understood by the general public - creating an environment where the misguided or unscrupulous are able to profit from people's ignorance. The spectrum ranges from silly stories about mathematicians determining that Angelina Jolie has the sexiest walk, through self-proclaimed "health gurus" using pseudo-scientifc language, to pharmaceutical companies promoting their latest drugs. Goldacre holds the media complicit by pointing out that in reporting science stories, mainstream journalists tend to take press releases from these different sources at face value, and seem to lack the tools - or the will - to question the information that they are being fed. Their agenda seems obvious - sensational stories sell newspapers - but it's worth considering that we would be shocked if a similar lack of scepticism was applied to (say) the claims of politicians.
He is keen to stress that there is a very practical reason why it matters that science should be better reported and understood, which is that people's health - and ultimately in some cases their lives - are at stake. The most memorable recent example of this was the confusion over the MMR vaccine here in the UK. Thus large parts of the book aim to provide the reader with the critcial tools needed to analyse scientific claims. Along the way we are introduced to the principles of "evidence-based medicine", the proper design of medical trials, and how to use statistics correctly to in order to avoid unconscious biases. These are all important, useful and interesting things to know, and Goldacre generally presents them clearly. He constantly returns to the point that we have to consider claims for any treatment based on understanding the evidence for its effectiveness (or otherwise), and more than that, that we are all in principle capable of doing that for ourselves.
Ultimately "Bad Science" is thought-provoking, educational and enjoyable. It even inspired me afterwards to read a about a medical trial in the British Medical Journal. So I would absolutely recommend it to anyone.