Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre. ISBN 978-0-00-728487-0. Fourth Estate, London. $26.99. Reviewed by Feike de Bock.
For those who have not yet heard of Ben Goldacre, his latest book Bad Science is an excellent introduction to his work. Goldacre is an award-winning writer, broadcaster and medical doctor who specialises in exposing false scientific claims made by scaremongering journalists, government reports, pharmaceutical corporations, PR companies and, of course, quacks. The book follows on from his well-known weekly column in the Guardian, also called Bad Science, which he has been writing since 2003 (www.badscience.net).
In this book he once again exposes the foolishness of quacks, poor scientific analysis and abuse of statistics, and the misinterpretation by the media of otherwise sounds medical publications. Goldacre is a master in the use of statistics and explains in simple terms the psychology behind the ability of pharmaceutical corporations to trumpet claims of success and manipulate the public with false but seemingly authoritative publications.
One particular highlight is his in-depth look at the absurdities of claims made by certain nutritionists. He launches a scathing attack on the many who still peddle their own dietary supplements and products without any peer-reviewed science to back up their claims. In particular he highlights the almost criminal activities of some nutritionists in promoting food supplements which research has shown to have no beneficial effect at all.
The most frightening example is Patrick Holford, the founder of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, who convinced the government of South Africa that Vitamin C is more effective than the Aids drug AZT, with disastrous consequences in increasing mortality within the Aids community. Other nutritionists like Matthias Rath and Dr Gillian McKeith do not escape Gold-acre’s critical and analytical pen, as he exposes their scandalous efforts to enrich themselves at the expense of the wider population. The usual subjects of homeopathy, antioxidant madness, brain gym and Omega-3 oils also receive healthy scrutiny.
It is even more alarming to read of the self-proclaimed health gurus who have penetrated institutes of tertiary education. In doing so, they are able to cloud the minds of young students with information that common sense would otherwise dictate as nonsense. Finally, Goldacre is extremely critical about sloppy journalistic practice, particularly the use of persuasive headlines and misinterpreted statistics to distort otherwise good science. In doing so, he highlights that, as is often the case, the driving force behind all the misleading information is money. One of the book’s last chapters is devoted to the journalistic scaremongering and the resulting avalanche of nonsense which caused so much harm to the MMR vaccination programme.
The book is amusing, witty, enlightening and instructive. But simultaneously it demonstrates the inability of many people to distinguish between good and bad science. This book is a must-read for every student, journalist, pharmacist, school teacher, and anyone involved in health or science. It would particularly be of great benefit to a number of breakfast TV presenters! The Times summarises it well:
“… unmissable, laying about himself in a froth of entirely justified indignation, Goldacre slams the mountebanks and bullshitters who misuse science. Few escape: drug companies, self-styled nutritionists, deluded researchers and journalists all get thoroughly duffed up.”
In my humble opinion Ben Goldacre is the James Randi of debunking medical nonsense.