Book Review: Bad Science, Ben Goldacre

October 15th, 2009

Bad Science is drawn from the Guardian column of the same name, as well as the many other things that Ben Goldacre covers on his website. The main focus is on the abuses of science that seem to proliferate in the press and on the Internet. Things such as scares over the MMR vaccine, scares over radiation from mobile phone towers, the infamous Brain Gym taught in some UK schools, and so on. Each topic is carefully examined, the faulty assumptions identified, and the real truth drawn out.

The author has a saying (available in T-Shirt form): “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than hat”. He revels in the complication. When it comes to the oft dismissed placebo effect he dives deeply into the inherent, wonderful weirdness of the placebo. If statistics are required for the explanation of something (often the case in modern medicine) he draws the details out. The combination of detail and accessibility is rare, and is a product of the author’s deep passion for the area.

It would be very easy for a book on this topic to be very depressing. There is so very much bad science out there, so many people profiting from people’s willingness to believe, and so many newspapers more than happy to put the simple answer on the front page, rather than all the footnotes. But I found the book energising, a call to action. It’s a book that brings the scope of the problem to your attention, and calls you to do something.

Of course, I don’t know a lot about science. But the book also made me think about the similar problems that are seen in journalism around economic issues in Australia (and probably elsewhere). But after reading this book I’m very tempted to start my own column on these things: Bad Economics. And that kind of result of reading a book is the sort of thing most authors would dream of.