Bad Science Should be Required Reading

Cover of Bad Science as viewed on Kindle Android

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is a fascinating read. I’ve intermittently followed his Bad Science column on the Guardian and it’s often thought provoking and uplifting too. I’m thus no stranger to the placebo effect, the inflated claims of homeopathy, and the commercial interests of all these companies selling diet plans and nutrition guidance. This book concentrates an overview of all that and more, with a level of scientific detail and rigour which should leave you without doubt that you must be prudent about what you read in the papers especially when related to carcinogens and/or wonder pills.

I recently bought the book for my Kindle. Pictured is the book on my phone (with Kindle app), happily synchronised with my Kindle which stays on my bedside table. It’s fantastic to be travelling home on the train and to simply pick up where I left off the night before, on a different device. Bad Science makes for fascinating – and frightening – reading. Sometimes there is complexity in the discourse, but this appears necessary to expose the fluff and pseudo-science which at face value seems reasonable or seems to prove the efficacy of a proposed wonder pill. This complexity is thankfully rare for the less scientifically inclined and certainly doesn’t get in the way of perfectly readable and understandable prose for the most part.

“For sheer savagery, the illusion-destroying, joyous attack on the self-regarding, know-nothing orthodoxies of the modern middle classes, Bad Science can not be beaten. You’ll laugh your head off, then throw all those expensive health foods in the bin.” Trevor Philips, Observer

The guiding principle which Bad Science seeks to expose is bamboozlement. Hiding data, over-emphasising positive results, and other quackery doesn’t stop people from believing in products. The worst of it is that this belief heightens the placebo effect and does nothing to vitiate the claims of alternative medicine. They’re not totally wrong, therefore, to claim that their products have usefulness. Once you read this book the tables may turn though, as you will realise that trials that are not blinded (where testers and participants alike are not aware of what they are actually giving/getting – real medication or placebo) are meaningless. You may as well just believe that something you like will make you better (a Wine Gum a day, a glass of wine a day) and eat your greens, stop smoking and do a bit of exercise of course.

This bamboozling is summarised by one of the most highlighted passages in the book (eBooks certainly have this advantage over their dead tree siblings):

This process of professionalising the obvious fosters a sense of mystery around science, and health advice, which is unnecessary and destructive. More than anything, more than the unnecessary ownership of the obvious, it is disempowering.

Don’t be blinded by science or misled that obvious things, said in veiled (and often fake) scientific terms, are suddenly new and above your head. Read this book. Feel better.

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