Ben Goldacre is a man on a mission. This doctor and journalist has made a career out of getting to the guts of sloppy, inaccurate, or misleading media reports on topics medical or scientific. In his book Bad science, he attempts to give the reader the tools, language, and general wherewithal to be able to recognise that just because “sciencey” words are being thrown at us doesn’t mean that everything being said is credible.
Admittedly, this might not sound like a fun read but that’s where you’d be wrong. Goldacre’s conversational and often sarcastic style is very readable. His enthusiasm for the topic is clear, as is his sense of irony (he once bought a membership to the American Association of Nutritional Consultants in the name of his dead cat to prove that the qualifications of a well-known television nutritionist weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. Some time later she had to stop using the honorific “Dr” – you know, since she wasn’t one.)
As well as being pretty damn funny Goldacre does a great job of informing the reader. I now know a lot more about how medical research is conducted and published, just how astonishing and important the placebo effect is, how misleading statistics can be, and what to look out for when reading or watching a story on “the latest medical breakthrough” (just because someone uses the phrase “research has shown…” doesn’t mean that the research has actually shown that) . I”ll never hear or read the words “scientifically proven” again without immediately getting a “ping” on my BS radar.
In fact, I feel so empowered with this new knowledge I’d go as far to say that everyone should know this stuff, but I’ll concede that I have neither the power nor the persuasive skills to make the entire population of the country read a book so, assuming that many of you reading this post won’t get that far, I might just leave you with Goldacre’s oft-repeated catchphrase that can be applied to just about every soundbite ever uttered by a scientific “expert” – “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Indeed.
If you’re after more revelatory stuff of a scientific nature then check out the following –
- Badscience.net – Goldacre’s website where he lifts the lid on all sorts of supposedly “scientific” information on everything from chocolate to water to brain gym.
- Elephants on acid and other bizarre experiments – Which documents the weird and often misguided experiments perpetrated by men and women of science, including giving LSD to elephants (seriously).
- Voodoo Science : the road from foolishness to fraud – More debunking from scientific sceptic and Professor of Physics, Bob Park.