by Ben Goldacre
“I spend a lot of time talking to people who disagree with me - I would go so far as to say that it's my favourite leisure activity.”
I'm an avid fan of More or Less, the popular statistics radio programme on BBC Radio, and I always enjoy Ben Goldacre's appearances on the show. At one point, I remember Tim Hartford introducing him as something like "the perennially angry Guardian columnist," to which Goldacre responded, "I am not perennially angry!" or similar. He got quite heated about it, much to everyone's amusement.
But Bad Science makes it clear, in the most entertaining way possible, why he's always angry. Homeopathy, alternative medicine, vitamins, fad nutrition, cosmetics, the MMR scare, the South African government's refusal to espouse antiretrovirals... he covers all of them, provides plenty of hard data, and eloquently and entertainingly discusses both the problems with the science and the potential dangers with the way they're advertised. I really enjoyed the book. My only complaint--and it's pretty minor--is that Goldacre's commentary can be a little patronising; he studiously avoids what he terms the "tedious" technical details, warns the reader of any impending math, and at one point goes into a diatribe that seems to assume the reader is an MMR scare believer. He also shies away from using probability, preferring natural frequencies, because he considers probability both unnatural and unnaturally difficult, but given that UK weather didn't start using probability until 2011, I guess it's a cultural thing.
Even though I guess I knew a lot of the substance in the abstract, this book was still an eye-opener for me. I knew the claims of the vitamin industry were questionable, but I had no idea how many studies actually disputed the common wisdom. (By the way, did you know that the "beta carotene is good for your eyesight" thing was a myth propagated by the British during WWII? They claimed their pilots' aim was due to a high-carrot diet, not to, say, radar.) I had no idea of the tragedy of Matthias Rath's influence on the South African government and the millions of lives lost because of it. I had never heard of Brain Gym, and I hope to never hear of it again. (By the way, Dr Goldacre, will you please go after Lumosity? Their ads drive me nuts.) He details the media mayhem surrounding the MMR-vaccine-causes-autism saga. He eviscerates, in an entirely fact-based discussion, the claims about homeopathy and other alternative medicines. My favourite part was when he bought a "certified professional membership" to the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, the same august institution claimed by a famous nutritionist, for his dead cat:
"I mean, I don't sign my dead cat up to bogus professional organizations for the good of my health, you know. It may sound disproportionate to suggest that I will continue to point out these obfuscations for as long as they are made, but I will, because to me there is a strange fascination in tracking their true extent."
I think Goldacre has isolated the core problem with this popular anti-science: it trains the populous to trust white-lab-coated authority figures, not facts. It teaches us not to question, but to blindly believe. And that is the true tragedy of Bad Science.
And now on to Bad Pharma...