Book Review: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre, for those who do not know, is a public campaigner for good scientific practice. He is a qualified medical Doctor, researcher and columnist for The Guardian. In this, his first published popular science book, he looks at many of the issues that he covers in his column and blog though a book gives him greater scope to look at them in greater depth, quote some sources and not be limited by the word counts of the newspaper.

Chapter by chapter, he looks at some of the biggest problems of alternative remedies, crank theories and pseudoscience. The nonsense of the detox, the vitamin supplement industry, Brain Gym, homeopathy and so many other issues, this is A fascinating and sometimes chilling look at the nonsense that plagues our everyday lives and attempts to part fools from their money – often with dangerous results. Goldacre leaves no stone unturned in the defence of medical science and Gillian McKeith (self-styled “nutritionist”) and her multimillion pound supplements business comes in for the most criticism. He recounts tales of horror from victims of the homeopathy fad for example.

His biggest tonguelashing is reserved for the media who distort press releases and twist stories to sensationalise actual findings, leaving them barely resembling the real report. This is a big problem in any science reporting but only with medical science can the results end up being devastating to our health. He says in no uncertain terms that they created the travesty of Andrew Wakefield (and not without justification) and that they never learn their lesson, only they repeat it time and time again. Proof of this is the The Daily Mail reporting of the Wakefield saga.

In amongst all this, he admits that sometimes some of these issues can give something positive to medical science – but most as a placebo effect. Here he gives the most succinct and complete explanation of what we do and do not understand about this rather curious fact of medical science. It must be remembered that placebo is no cure, it merely helps people to feel better in their symptoms – this works for minor ailments such as a cold or as painkilling effects.

Neither does the medical profession get off lightly, he acknowledges and criticises the flaws in the system – the covering up of bad data, the cherrypicking and the confirmation bias. At the time of writing, Goldacre is presently planning a book that criticises problems in the pharmaceutical industry – this is due for release in 2012.

Ben Goldacre has written an approachable and informative book that discusses bad science practices and the often devastating effect such methods and their practitioners can have on our health. After reading this, you will never trust another science report as expressed in the media again.

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