Book Review: Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science, media personality on The Infinite Monkey Cage and critic of alternative medicines, turns his eye towards those who give science a bad name and support bad science for a variety of reasons. He first hinted about writing this critique of the pharmaceutical companies in Bad Science but now he takes the bull completely by the horns.

This book was published in 2012 at a time when the good doctor was using his column in The Guardian to call for more open access in science and publication of all research data, no matter how negative it is for each drug. Sadly, he hasn’t written for the newspaper since December 2014. I can only hope he is doing more work on projects like this in calling for more open access papers, the break down of the stranglehold by journal editors and too much private investment corrupting the scientific process. Good science is necessary and for too long, substandard medicines have made their way onto the market pushed by big companies that spend more on marketing than they do on research.

This is a book that will educate, inform and anger you at the same time. Ben Goldacre is a GP and a public advocate of science. If you are looking for a book that points out the flaws of the pharmaceutical industry purely to reinforce your belief that ginseng infused green tea will cure your cancer, you should look elsewhere. That is not what this is about. It is important to reiterate that just because some pharmaceutical companies engage in bad practice, it doesn’t mean that medical science is useless. Pharmaceutical companies are not perfect and nobody is claiming they are. Some are engaging in bad scientific practice – it is that and only that which Goldacre wants to draw our attention.

If anything, it points out how wonderful the scientific method is, how useful it is when done properly. It reinforces the importance of medical science and the lengths to which some go to bury bad data.

At the start, he goes into detail about how science is supposed to work. Early on he explains what the peer review is for the benefit of those who do not know. He includes the necessary development of the Systematic Review including the use of highly functional yet simple “Blobbograms”. All of this, like his previous book, is nicely set out to cater to all audiences. There is succinct explanation for the interested observer without feeling overwhelmed and enough detail for medical professionals without feeling they are back at their very first lecture at the start of their medical degrees.

There are few chapters and they are lengthy, but conveniently broken down into subsections. This is especially useful as the writing can sometimes be dense, particularly when he talks about statistics, research methodology, meta-analysis and so on. These are concepts about which I am familiar and even I felt bogged down. For those who do not have scientific background, it may be one of the hardest concepts to understand.

Nevertheless, Goldacre is a phenomenal writer and he manages to pull of balancing the reader’s needs with style. As ever, just like his Guardian column, it is a pleasure and informative to read his work and come away feeling like you learnt something. It is not really light bedtime reading, but if you want a book to really get your teeth into, this is one that will certainly do that. The content is rather dry though. It’s certainly heavy going and it’s not the amusing page Turner that Bad Science was. Nevertheless, those with an interest in medical science should read this.

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