I spend a lot of time talking to people who disagree with me – I could go as far as to say that it’s my favourite leisure activity – and repeatedly I meet individuals who are eager to share their views on science despite the fact that they have never done an experiment. They have never tested an idea for themselves, using their own hands; or seen the results of that test, using their own eyes; and they have never thought carefully about what those results mean for the idea they are testing, using their own brain. To these people, ‘science’ is a monolith, a mystery, and an authority, rather than a method.In Bad Science, Ben Goldacre does two things: first, he explains how the scientific method works, and he does so in a simple, accessible and enjoyable way. And secondly, he denounced how the concept of ‘science’ keeps being distorted: by the press, by drug companies, by individuals trying to make money or push their own agendas. Goldacre is a British doctor, so the examples he uses are mostly UK-based and about health, but the ideas in this book are applicable to all sorts of fields of scientific knowledge and cultural contexts.
One of the most important ideas presented in this book is that science is a method, not a power game nor a system of belief. It has, of course, been appropriated by those who mean to use it to reinforce their power, but when that happens, we are entering the field of bad science. As any other method, science has rules, and those rules are not established arbitrarily with the intention of excluding anyone. They exist because they work, and there are very concrete reasons why they work.
Testability, clinical trials, randomization, control groups, representative samples, statistical significance, peer revisions, meta-analysis, you name it: Ben Goldacre explains it all in a way that anyone can understand. Actually, that too is part of his point: the scientific method is accessible. Anyone can understand it, and anyone can perform simple experiments. Likewise, anyone can spot a dubious experiment. The idea that science is out of the reach of mere mortals is one of the ways in which it keeps being distorted.
Also very important, he explains why: why all of this stuff matters, why we need it, why it’s used, and why studies with methodological flaws cannot be trusted. It’s not a matter of nitpicking – or rather, it is, but this kind of nitpicking is healthy and desirable, and it’s thanks to it that we know as much as we do today.
Reading Bad Science reminded me of my research methodology classes, which were taught by one of the best teachers I’ve ever read. In addition to how science works, he taught us think critically. And that too is the aim of this book. I have to admit that in my case, Ben Goldacre was preaching to the choir a little bit, because I’m a sceptic and I’m prone to being suspicious of pretty much everything. But no matter how you feel about science and health and alternative therapies, read this book. You will not be bullied into changing your mind. You’ll be given very concrete information that will hopefully allow you to make more informed decisions.
But I don’t want to give you the impression that Bad Science puts traditional medicine up against alternative therapies and explains why one is superior to the other. That’s not the case at all. Ben Goldacre writes about big drug companies, about nutritionists, about homoeopaths, about conventional doctors, about doctors-who-are-not-quite-doctors, you name it: about anyone who uses dodgy methods or makes questionable claims, really.
Another important point is that even though Goldacre can be sarcastic (hilariously, deliciously so), Bad Science is not an unkind book. It will not make anyone feel stupid or unwelcome or inadequate. It doesn’t mock or belittle people for believing the things they believe. There is, in fact, a chapter entitled “why clever people believe stupid things”, which explains the several cognitive process that can lead to wrong conclusions we are all prone to.
And why does any of this matter, you ask? Because in many cases it’s a matter of life and death. The chapter “The Doctor Will Sue You Now” (new in the paperback edition because Goldacre was stopped from publishing it before) is about how millions of people are dying of AIDS in Africa and being advised to treat it with vitamins rather than conventional medication. It’s so horrifying it literally made me cry. And a well-known example: Dr. Benjamin Spock’s well-meaning but untested advice that babies should sleep on their bellies led to thousands of cot deaths. This is why knowledge is important. This is why we need to follow the method.
Ben Goldacre also denounces (and how I love him for it!) what he calls the “medicalisation of everyday life”, and the increasing tendency to present pills as solutions for complex social problems. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that this is a topic I care about passionately.
Another favourite chapter of mine was the one about how the press contributes to misinforming people about science. This is now it usually goes:
The scientific content of stories – the actual experimental evidence – is brushed over and replaced with didactic statements from authority figures on either side of the debate, which contributes to a pervasive sense that scientific advice is somehow arbitrary, and predicated upon a social role – the ‘expert’ – rather than on transparent and readily understandable empirical evidence.This whole idea that scientific knowledge is a form of bogus authority that simply feeds on itself is unfortunately very common. And like I was saying before, that does happen. But when it does, we aren’t really dealing with science, but rather with its misuse.
Ben Goldacre is my new hero. Everyone should read this book. Not so that you can be persuaded to take one position or the other, but because there is information here that everyone should have. Also, it’s fun! Really, it is. Ben Goldacre is extremely funny and an excellent writer. I found this book impossible to put down - so much so that I completely neglected the also very gripping Wicked Lovely until I was done with it.
More awesome bits:
Because they cannot find new treatments for the diseases we already have, the pill companies instead invent new diseases for the treatments they already have. Recent favourites include Social Anxiety Disorder (a new use for SSRI drugs), Female Sexual Dysfunction (a new use for Viagra in women), night eating syndrome (SSRIs again), and so on: problems, in a real sense, but perhaps not necessarily the stuff of pills, and perhaps not best conceived of in reductionist biomedical terms. In fact, reframing intelligence, loss of libido, shyness and tiredness as medical pill problems could be considered crass, exploitative, and frankly disempowering.Bad Science Blog
In the aggregate, these ‘breakthrough’ stories sell the idea that science—and indeed the whole empirical world view – is only about tenuous, new, hotly contested data and spectacular breakthroughs. This reinforces one of the key humanities graduates’ parodies of science: as well as being irrelevant boffinry, science is temporary, changeable, constantly revising itself, like a transient fad. Scientific findings, the argument goes, are therefore dismissible.
How do the media work around their inability to deliver scientific evidence? Often they use authority figures, the very antithesis of what science is about, as if they were priests, or politicians, or parent figures. ‘Scientists today said…Scientists revealed… Scientists warned.’ If they want balance, you’ll get two scientists disagreeing, although with no explanation of why (an approach which can be seen at its most dangerous in the myth that scientist were ‘divided’ over the safety of the MMR). One scientist will ‘reveal’ something, and then another will ‘challenge’ it. A bit like Jedi knights.
Ben Goldacre on Twitter
(Have you posted about this book? Let me know and I’ll be glad to add your link here.)
I'm so sorry! I should have announced this last week, but I completely forgot. The winner of the copy of The Fox Woman I was giving away is Paperback Reader. Congratulations! E-mail me your address and I'll send the book your way as soon as possible.