Tuesday, 17 July 2012

REVIEW: 'Bad Science' by Ben Goldacre

I have just finished reading 'Bad Science' by Dr Ben Goldacre, and I wanted to review it straight away.

Ben Goldacre writes the 'Bad Science' column for the Guardian newspaper each week. The Guardian website has the following to say about the 'Bad Science' column: 'Each week Ben Goldacre skewers the enemies of reason. If you're a journalist who misrepresents science for the sake of a headline, a politician more interested in spin than evidence, or an advertiser who loves pictures of molecules in little white coats, then beware: your days are numbered.'

I think this is a very good introduction to what to expect from the book!

What's it about?
'How do we know if a treatment works, or if something causes cancer? Can the claims of homeopaths ever be as true – or as interesting as the improbable research into the placebo effect? Who created the MMR hoax? Do journalists understand science? Why do we seek scientific explanations for social, personal and political problems? Are alternative therapists and the pharmaceutical companies really so different, or do they just use the same old tricks to sell different types of pill? We are obsessed with our health, and yet – from the media’s ‘world-expert microbiologist’ with a mail-order PhD in his garden shed laboratory, multiple health scares and miracle cures, to the million pound trial that Durham Council now denies ever existed – we are constantly bombarded with inaccurate, contradictory and sometimes even misleading information. Until now. Ben Goldacre masterfully dismantles the dodgy science behind some of the great drug trials, court cases and missed opportunities of our time, but he also goes further: out of the bulls---, he shows us the fascinating story of how we know what we know, and gives us the tools to uncover bad science for ourselves.' summary from Amazon.

What did I think of it?
'Bad Science' was a fascinating read! Although I had some knowledge of  problems with several of the topics discussed, I was still constantly amazed at what the media is allowed to get away with in terms of reporting science, what individuals could do with their own crazy ideas, what poor trials are conducted and what the pharmaceutical and nutrition industries really get up to.  Goldacre does a great job of teaching us to spot the failures of Big Pharma, alternative medicine, dodgy statistics and journalism. He manages to do this in an entertaining way using real life examples from the the newspapers, television and scientific literature. 

Goldacre begins by describing some totally bogus science that has infiltrated into society, and it's such a great example to give you a taste of this book, I'll summarise it here. Goldacre saw someone on daytime TV dipping her feet in an 'Aqua Detox' footbath, releasing her toxins into the water, turning it brown, he thought he'd try the same at home, but instead of using his own feet- he used his girlfriend's Barbie doll. He gently passed an electrical current through the warm salt water. It turned brown. In his words: 'before my very eyes, the world's first Detox Barbie was sat, with her feet in a pool of brown sludge, purged of a weekend's immorality.'  A clear demonstration of some of the nonsense people will believe when they can't spot bad science or simply do not have any common sense. 

I think this anecdote also helps to illustrate the easy, witty and humorous writing style of Goldacre. You are learning in this book as Goldacre takes a fair amount of time and effort to truly explain what makes a good, fair scientific trial, and how to spot bad science yourself, but the learning is very easy to understand and follow, and it never felt like a chore. The book is clearly laid out, easy to understand, and doesn't assume you're an idiot. Goldacre takes the attitude that if you explain something difficult clearly enough, you'll be able to understand it. 

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on homeopathy, Gillian McKeith and nutrition. It was hard to pick just a few as the whole book was incredibly engaging and interesting. The book is filled with examples of stupidity that made me cry out in horror (Brain Gym for instance!) and examples of events that are truly evil (Matthias Rath- this chapter is available  on the Bad Science website hereI recommend you read it! You will be disgusted).  Actually, it's worth pointing out that all of Goldacre's newspaper columns from 2003 are on his website if you want to read more about any of the particular topics I've mentioned, but haven't time to read the entire book. 

I really recommend this book, it was a real eye opener and it also made me laugh! One thing to note, is that I think several of the examples used to illustrate points in the book may only be known to the British audience, but there are plenty of chapters where this is not the case, and the book has something to teach people worldwide. 


Goodreads Reading Challenge
This book is number 7 out of 50


  1. Cool blog. I love the title of it! lol
    new follower!


  2. I never heard about this book before, probably because it was not published in my country, but I really like your review, I'll look forward to read it!