After Ben Goldacre’s recent troubles I decided that it was probably time to pick his book up off my post-Christmas reading pile. Now I regret not getting to Bad Science sooner, as I’ve been unable to put it down – to the extent of perversely wishing that my Tube journeys were longer so I could keep reading!
Goldacre could have made writing a book very easy on himself – package up favourites from his Guardian column and blog, write a short introduction, and then slap a cover and a price tag on them. In fact, that’s exactly what fellow Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker did in his book Dawn of the Dumb. I’m not knocking Brooker, I find him hilarious, but Goldacre has done so much more.
Goldacre manages to be as methodical as he is amusing in his examination of the pseudoscience peddled by nutritionists, homeopaths and the media at large. Much of the work is based on his columns – in research for my post yesterday about risk I came across a treatment of the subject on badscience.net, then coincidentally read more or less the same passage in the book later that evening – but it is expanded and refined in the way a weekly column just can’t hope to be.
The chapters are more or less standalone, but the book is still best read in order to appreciate Goldacre’s building to his finale: The Media’s MMR Hoax. He clearly explains the history of the fiasco as well as the actual evidence showing that MMR is not harmful. Throughout the book we are taught how the quality of a study can be evaluated, and in the final chapter Goldacre puts this knowledge to good use. The studies are even fully referenced in the back of the book, so you can go and check them out for yourself if you fancy that sort of thing.
If there’s one criticism I have, it’s that the title of the book should really be “Bad Medical Science”. As a medical doctor it’s only fair that Goldacre cover his field of expertise, but I’m not sure I detected even the smallest whiff of physics.
It doesn’t really matter. I heartily recommend Bad Science to everyone. It’s completely accessible, a cracking read, and you’ll actually learn something whilst laughing. It’s a shame to think that the people who most need to read this book, the people throwing away their money on useless treatments peddled by charlatans, probably never will.
Goldacre admits as much, closing the book by speaking directly to those he has criticised. “You win,” he says, attributing their victory to a near-complete media dominance. To Goldacre I say this: keep fighting. You’re an inspiration to the rest of us.