Sunday, 24 May 2009

Book Review - Bad Science

Something is wrong in our society. Every day the media serves us our daily health scare, nutritionists claim their pills will cure all manner of ailments, and the pharmaceutical companies are simply evil. All three twist, ignore or hide evidence in their persistent pursuit of profits. In this book Dr Ben Goldacre sets out to equip us with the critical thinking required to protect the public from being manipulated by Bad Science in their daily lives, while also providing another opportunity for medics and scientists to snigger at the ridiculousness of homeopaths.

The book opens by tackling what seem at first glance to be relatively trivial abuses of science such as the pseudoscience used to sell cosmetics and Brain Gym, a course of government endorsed pseudoscientific exercises to improve children’s performance in the classroom. Goldacre uses these to demonstrate how science has become somewhat of a parody in the minds of the public, where ‘the science’ is something you’re not expected to try and understand, you’re just supposed to accept what the ‘experts’ say without question. What is worrying is how widespread the acceptance of this has become; even those responsible for educating our children seem to be unable to see the blatant holes in the theory behind Brain Gym exercises.

We’re then taken to the world of homeopathy, a world easily ridiculed with little thought, but this rather lengthy chapter only briefly discusses why the homeopathic theory might be considered nonsense and instead focuses on the studies that have shown it to perform no better than placebo. Where there are studies that show homeopathy to be effective, Goldacre uses these to demonstrate why not all studies are equal, and introduces the reader to the concept of good trial design and why the placebo effect has to be carefully controlled in human trials.

Nutritionists are next in the firing line, a new profession in which the people dispensing dietary advice also conveniently have a range of their own brand supplements they would like to sell to you. It doesn’t take much effort to notice they spend as much time selling the problems as they do selling the cures. They also respond to criticism of their studies with lawyers, rather than supporting evidence as real scientists would. The most well known nutritionist, ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith has a whole chapter dedicated to her and her spurious qualifications.

While all this may seem to be doing no real harm, Goldacre has a very serious point. The ignorance of facts is becoming so ingrained into our culture it will be hard to shake off. A national campaign encouraging children to take fish oil supplements to improve exam performance inadvertently taught our children that taking pills is essential to a normal life. The suggested benefits were later disproved, but still parents fill their children with fish oil as if they’d be bad parents for not doing so. Lies often become so widespread that they become part of culture and are accepted without question. Bad health advice kills. From the old recommendation that babies should sleep on their front to the recent denial of HIV therapy in South Africa, thousands of lives have been lost due to bad science.

The later chapters explore the role of the media in presenting bad science on a daily basis, their objective being to gain audience for advertising revenue, rather than inform them. A whole chapter is dedicated to the media’s MMR hoax and how it is responsible directly for the resurgence of diseases which we really shouldn’t have to worry about now.

While Goldacre writes with good humor, there is a clear sense of his frustration with having to explain these things, as they should never have been misrepresented in the first place. His extremely well researched and explained arguments have clearly been refined by years of arguing for the sake of the truth, and for the lives that depend on it. However, at some points it did occasionally feel as if the arguments went on considerably longer than they needed to, though Goldacre admits to this in the text and reassures the reader that he does this only when he feels it is important. While he remains cheerful and makes a point of not adding to the scaremongery already out there, the underlying message is that lives depend on the good use of science and consumers being able to spot bad science. This book is an essential lesson that schools rarely teach, and as such it has something for everybody to learn about the world we live in.