The state of publicly reported science in our world is, according to Ben Goldacre, very grim indeed. With the details of newspaper reporters who aren’t trained scientists misinterpreting releases, pharmaceutical companies funding and rigging studies, and widely lauded ‘experts’ who are anything but, Goldacre works to put power back into the hands of his readers. Explaining carefully and patiently what’s gone wrong and how to judge whether or not we should believe what we hear on the news (short answer: no), he clearly and often humorously elucidates the problems facing modern science and the many injustices continually perpetuated on the public by those who are aiming for money and fame, rather than the welfare of human beings.
Unquestionably, my favorite part of this book is the fact that Goldacre is honestly showing us how to judge the science reported to us. He takes science down off its pedestal and displays it for everyone to learn about. As a child in an American school, I did learn about the scientific method, and I have performed experiments and examined the results of them myself. Unfortunately it’s been so many years since I did so that I’d forgotten nearly everything (which is something they don’t teach in school!). Goldacre’s book served as an entirely welcome reminder, especially in the world of constant health scares that we live in. Every other day, something else is discovered to raise your risk of cancer or make you magically healthy. He brings us a hearty dose of skepticism and several ways to measure results for ourselves.
Health is probably the biggest issue covered in the book, largely because Goldacre is himself a doctor and can most clearly talk about this issue. He doesn’t shy away from the big ones, either, targeting everything from the absurd things children are taught in school right up to the big MMR scare and the many ways people in Africa are misled about treatments that can genuinely save their lives. He does name people in the industry who practice bad science, but throughout he makes it clear that we can escape this ourselves. He doesn’t villainize any particular person so much as the entire industries that have grown on false studies. He does, however, target humanities graduates a little too enthusiastically at times for me. Since I am one of them who is trying to understand better (why else would I be reading this book?), I wasn’t entirely thrilled to find myself so obviously stereotyped. But the rest of the book was worth it.
There is so much covered in this book that I can hardly scrape the surface. It occurred to me, as I was reading, that this book actually would go quite well with In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, especially given that the latter discusses some bad science in the nutrition industry too. Both authors encourage their readers to use reason, not to blindly trust in the media or people who are trying to make money off of our problems, even non-existent ones. Goldacre advises against the medicalization of society, this idea that we can take a pill and be cured of ills which would otherwise require an attitude change. Pollan does the same thing, but in terms of food; why rely on supplements and unproven nutritional vitamins when you can just vary your diet and achieve greater benefits? Questioning the world around us and making up our own minds is, in my opinion, one of the best things we can do, and both of these authors give us back the power to do precisely that.
Bad Science is a book I’d highly recommend to anyone, particularly those who like me have forgotten the little science they knew to start with. It’s informative, empowering, and well worth the time spent reading it.
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