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Bad Science Review – Ben Goldacre

There are a lot of misconceptions in science – mostly fueled by the mass media. Some of this is just plain wrong, while others can even be dangerous.

Most of this pseudoscience – that is, theories that are cloaked in scientific-sounding explanations or extrapolated from honest research but misinterpreted. Some of this has seeped into the popular consciousness.

For example, detox diets and antioxidant supplements – both plainly don’t stand up to scientific critiscism. Others, like the furore over the MMR jab, have already been retracted yet continue to convice some.

While I was never – let’s say naive – enough to fall for all the science stories you hear, I did believe a lot that was assumed to be common knowledge. For example, the antioxidants, and certain vitamins help with certain ailments. Mostly, it has to be said, gleamed from the newspapers and other outlets. After all, you’d expect your newspaper of choice to at least check the facts, even if you have a healthy wariness about the usual fear mongering articles.

Bad Science , a newspaper column, website, and book by Ben Goldacre has been a godsend. In it he shows how many popular medical beliefs are pure hokum. For example, the various alternative treatments. While I never believed in Homeopathy and the like I thought Nutritionism was a valid science. Turns out I was wrong. There are honest researchers in the nutrition field, but today’s nutritionists who prescribe various supplements, vitamins and minerals as the cures for the worlds ill are far from honest. Turns out it’s mostly down to the placebo effect.

Just look at Gillian McKeith as one example, since Goldacre really attacks her. Or Matthias Rath – who worked with the South African Government to deny effective HIV/AIDS treatments to sufferers. And there are others, like Patrick Holford of Biocare.

Bad Science – whether you read in print or via the webssite, is an eye opener. But you should not take it as truth – as you would be making the mistakes that Goldacre advises against and trust the word of one man. Luckily, today we have the World Wide Web and from a few mouse clicks you can see the truth. Unless of course the entire WWW is biased…

Bad Science delves into the truths behind clinical trials, blind and double-blind, the placebo effect, and bias. This is great background knowledge for the detailed exposes that follow – including the aforementioned McKeith and Holford, the Brain Gym, Fish Oil supplements, and many others. Some of this is straightforward, some less so, but it’s always informative and entertaining.

I also recommend ” Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear ” – a great book about the truth behind fear and risk, scaremongering, and much more. Or ” Irrationality “, a more thorough look into the errors behind certain statistics, experiments, and trials. Then there’s ” Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives “, an entertaining book about psychological experiments and the very intriguing ways in which we all think and act. These all show how easy it is for a dishonest scientist, researcher, or businessman to cook the figures. The problem is, unless you frequently read journals and seek out the original studies you’d never know. We rely on journalists, magazines, and TV shows to condense and circulate the information.

While it’s pretty obvious after you’ve read these books that it’s easy to cheat the data whether voluntary or not, and you might not be so aware of the many statements that are taken as fact that are simply unproven. The bulk of the book is taken up with explanations of how proper studies are conducted, published, and peer-reviewed and all too often the alternative therapies fail at this first hurdle.

The answer, if there is one, is not to believe anything. Have a healthy sceptiscism about these things. And if you are ever prescribed some therapy or medicine, want to buy some gadget, or are excited by some new discovery, research it’s benefits, side effects, and read the trials. And be sure to read both sides of the argument to avoid any inherrent bias you might hold.

This is the new edition of Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. It includes the bonus chapter on Matthias Rath, which couldn’t be reported on in the original edition since Goldacre was the subject of a court case by the good scientist at the time. You can also read that chapter at BadScience.net

Please note: The links in this review lead to amazon.co.uk but the widget below will be of use to US readers who use amazon.com