By Dr Rachel
Ben Goldacre opens his book ‘Bad Science’ with the promise that by the end of the book, you will be able to win any science-y argument you choose, from vaccinations to preventing cancer with super vegetables.
This is a big ask! Too big perhaps? However, given the level of understanding of the scientific method in the general population, he has a point. When the standard is so low, a crash test in these topics will put you well ahead of the game. Especially the game played by many celebrity “experts” or over passionate and tipsy dinner companions. One of the so-called “experts” Goldacre takes a serious swipe at got her PhD off the internet. To prove his point Goldacre got one for his dead cat.
Bad Science covers some great science basics such as: what is a controlled experiment, the importance of blinding, randomization, the placebo effect, causation (does the rooster cause the sun to rise?), confounding variables, what is a meta-analysis and much more. He builds these explanations into the text so it doesn’t read like a dry methods 101 textbook.
Snake Oil Anyone?
Perhaps, more importantly, Goldacre helps the layperson spot the tricks which snake oil salespeople use to make their wares sound super science-y. Which FYI they have been doing for eons.
A classic snake oil trick is to get carried away with extrapolation. For example fairy liquid will kill cells in a test tube – but that doesn’t mean it might be the next cancer wonder drug eh?
Another classic trick of the pseudoscience quacks is cherry-picking. There are thousands-upon-thousands of articles published each year. Sadly the quality varies. Hence if you want to tell a ‘science-backed’ story that supports your mad ideas or latest product to market – you can almost certainly build most any case about most anything, as long as your potential buyers do not clearly understand the principles discussed in this book.
Do I have criticisms of Bad Science? Sure. Accusing homeopaths/nutritionists of being idiots, is not helping get them onside. The accusation is especially misplaced when humans are not logical. Our beliefs are not driven by logic or, as it happens, intelligence. I seem to remember something about smart folks being worse at drawing dumb conclusions – ouch!
Note to Ben – Attack the message not the messenger Ben. Seriously.
Goldacre is nothing if not a man of equality – so big pharma gets a beating too. He does warn that just because big pharma are bad – don’t be childish and illogical (there goes the hippy bashing again) and make that mean homeopathy is great and vaccinations cause autism.
Regardless of where you stand on these and other issues; if you are going to enter into any debates on anything involving science you should read this book.
I would go further and say all high school students (and their parents) should read this book and then talk about it – with much vigour and enthusiasm over their paleo, vegan, traditional or whatever meal.
As for me, I am going to trust Goldacre ahead of Gwyneth Paltrow’s opinion in a heartbeat on all and any matters of science. However, I shall endeavour to be a bit more careful about how I put my thoughts across at parties full of Gwyneth lovers (who haven’t heard of Goldacre – prolly because he is not nearly so pretty, rich or famous). If stuck in such a nightmare situation, I will revert to Goldacres catchphrase.
… “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”…
Which is also, rather conveniently, the title of one of his other books. Simply proving you don’t need to be a quack to sell your wares.
*This post discusses the book ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre. (2009) Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York.