on 15 September 2008
Like the very best popular science, this book is patient but fascinating in building up your knowledge of the subject area - in this case medical (and 'alternative' medical) research. However, it goes beyond this in building up to a damning indictment of the media's handling of the MRSA and MMR scares, as part of their wider crimes against the public understanding of science.
In the hands of a polemecist such as Micheal Moore, these frauds perpetrated against the public would be described at a pitch of white hot rage (lkely with almost EVERY WORD IN CAPS). However Dr Goldacre describes the frankly horrifying details of these scares in patient and methodical detail, and is all the more compelling for it.
This book is compulsory reading. It should be forcefully inserted onto every reading list prepared by anyone, for anything.
on 24 February 2013
This is a must-read for anybody who ever finds themselves wondering about why the quality of science journalism is so poor. Goldacre goes into great depth about the evils of corporations, and has some very funny anecdotes about some of the more questionable pesudo-science bandied about to so-called 'alternative therapists'. My problem with the book is the clear contempt he has for his subjects. I understand more than most how annoying it is to confront scientific ignorance (I'm a science teacher, so I see my share of stupidity), but there are a lot of frankly spiteful diatribes against the academic qualifications of anybody who Goldacre disagrees with. I'm all for exposing people who lie or deliberately distort facts, but this book seems more to be a waspish attack on anybody who doesn't have the same level of education that those who have completed a science degree poses. For example, there are numerous uses of the phrase 'journalists with humanities degrees", which seems unnecessary to me. In one section, Goldacre brushes off the fact that one person he wrote about may have commited suicide as a result of this book. While I concur that the man in question - somebody who established a microbiology lab in his garden shed - was clearly under-qualified for the work he did, I felt that there was a distatestful attempt to justify the treatment meted out in the book. Clearly there is always a need to question the credentials of those purporting to have made amazing new discoveries, but the snide comments about 'using kitchen tables' as lab benches actually weakened the appeal of the book, by mocking a mans environment rather than the actual work he carried out.
This is disappointing, as I found it difficult to carry on reading something that I agree with when there was so much nastiness veiled as incisive commentary. I can understand the source of that anger - I just think it was overdone.
on 26 December 2013
Should be made compulsory reading for all members of the media who don't understand science, i.e. most of them. A balanced opinion is not both sides supported equally.
on 19 July 2015
This is one of those books which should be required reading for anyone either embarking on a career in science, anyone writing about science in the media, and anyone who might read scientific articles in the press. Goldacre's theme is that we are basically vulnerable to the ignorance and/or charlatanry of professional journalists and alternative therapists who are unaware of how science works and have no interest in educating either themselves or the people they are selling to, whether it's scare stories to their readership or snake oil therapies to sometimes frightened or desperate sick people.
People can perhaps detect smugness in some of his writing - he is a Guardian columnist, after all - but this should not detract from the fact that alternative therapists not only peddle cures which have not been subjected to any kind of rigorous testing, but they attack and undermine established medicine among some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth - the chapter on the exploitation of South African AIDS sufferers by alternative therapists did not describe New Age dottiness, it described a crime against humanity.
The point that Goldacre makes is simple: if you want to sell your radical healthcare product to the public, test it, using double blinding, proper controls and ensure that the subjects are not tainted by physical contamination or conscious or unconscious biases, and then publish the results so that any scientist or government regulatory body can review your methods, your analysis of the results and your interpretations, reproduce them and agree - or not - with your findings. Dr Goldacre is perfectly open to properly tested therapies - he says so, repeatedly. Not that you'd get that from reading the 1-star reviews, which are mainly written by people who have not read the book properly, and of whom some admit to having a fiscal or intellectual stake in the unproven therapies he skewers throughout the book. Goldacre has little time either for Big Pharma's scientific methods, not that the 1-star pseudo-reviewers who accuse him of being a Big Pharma stooge would have read that part.
If you have any interest in how science is reported in the media, how it is sold to the public or just in science generally, this book provides an interesting an enlightening read.
on 31 October 2013
AUDIENCE: I generally write reviews about dog books and this book does not focus on dogs but if every dog trainer and behaviourist embraced its values, our unregulated profession would be rid of the nonsense claims and partisanship that plague it. Dog owners would greatly benefit from reading it too, to tell the unscrupulous from the serious professional with this "charlatan detection 101". And do you know what? Make the audience academics too: it is a masterpiece in science communication. Learn from the master of powerful and in-your-face analogies if you want to carry your message further than the four walls of your lab, and spread reason beyond the closed circles of your intellectual elite.
"Bad Science" will help the reader understand the principles of the scientific method. I mean REALLY understand them, and, hopefully, integrate them into their critical thinking toolbox so that they never again are the dupes of dubious claims, adorned as they are with poor logic and unreliable 'facts'.
The book uncovers the dirty details of the esoteric industry, big pharma, the press, etc. and gives you a thorough account of the big 'science' news items (e.g. MMR vaccine 'controversy', SSRI's - antidepressants cover-up, acupuncture's desperate claims for credibility, etc.). Go ahead, make up your mind on these issues: but do so in an informed and rational way. Hopefully, you'll read it before you go up in arms against GM, push for homeopathy to be reimbursed by health insurances, or jump on the latest conspiracy theory bandwagon.
'Bad Science" will also help you sort the chaff from the wheat when conflicting \scientific' findings is presented to you. No longer will you think: "Equally (in)valid pieces of research support both sides of this argument. There's no way to tell which has more merit. Science is just more political nonsense." If you truly embrace the message, you will understand that a claim's reliability is on a spectrum (hardly anything is 100% 'true'), but that there is an objective way to compare the relative reliability of each claim. You will understand that the scientific method is a simple system of demerits (e.g. sample size too small, presenting relative instead of absolute risk, conflict of interest, not falsifiable, not independently verifiable, not ever reproduced, results were the same as chance/random, sample was not representative and had a bias, etc.). More importantly, you'll know how to apply that system to each conflicting claim that is presented to you, and see which one comes out on top. No politics, no pressure, no favoritism. Just an assessment of the merits of a claim based on the good ole scientific method.
I found the book impossible to put down. What with the scathing wit and the fact-packed scandals. If you were already a critical thinker, read it anyway. You'll find the turns of phrases, simplifications and analogies help bring your point across more compellingly and effectively in the future. I have a long and traumatic history of my audience's eyes glazing over after yet another tirade on critical thinking, so I share your pain. To my disbelief, apparently, most mortals don't get as wildly excited as me about statistics and research methods, and, if I am to get my message across, I need to embrace that fact.
One negative point: at times, the pace will be excruciatingly slow if you have a background in science, but hang in there. The verve and wit are worth the few patronizing moments. The plus point is that, even if you are a total beginner at, say, statistics, he will break it down for you in tiny paragraphs focusing only on what you need to know to interpret statistical claims critically.
So, whether only have a tentative understanding of the scientific method, or whether you're a lifelong skeptic, I guarantee you, hand on heart, you WILL love this book. And hopefully, a little bit of it will stay with you and humanity will become the overwhelmingly rational species it has the potential to be, one reader at a time.
For more book reviews, check out canis bonus.
on 20 June 2013
...although also confirmed some of my previously held beliefs.
Ben's writing style keeps you reading. I am definitely going to pick up BadPharma now and keep an eye on his blog. Yeah, he is a little patronising. Assuming that people around me wouldn't understand the difference between mode, mean and median for instance was a low point, perhaps, for humanity or at least the British school system. But then you realise we've engineered this to be true... classic example he picks up on is car maintenance (it's not difficult but we've done our best to make it so).
There are many moments where I laughed out loud - normally from frank, to the point, evaluation of a statement made by someone else(think Swiss cheese). And to my great shame, I was unaware to the extent that some are mislead, even governments, to the point of tears. Another one being to do with the MRSA health scare and resulting extinction of a human being that was probably the direct result of the media's need for stories(although maybe we are the ones extrapolating now?). We really do have some issues...
I don't think many people will feel like the veil has been lifted from their eyes, but many may be surprised - as I was - at how systemic the general abuse and manipulation of fact and fiction is in the Media and large Pharmaceutical companies.
You'll never trust stories (extrapolated, simplistic, anecdotal, fiction) with phrase like ["Scientists have said...", "New research shows..", "Dr X, expert in Y",] again from News Papers, TV, Magazines etc.
I shouldn't be surprised really. Working in marketing I'd say he's bang on the money if it carries across to all areas of profiteering through FUD, misinformation and wild conjecture. Perhaps some people don't realise that in the world of PR, no one person ever said anything.
on 28 May 2012
An absolutely riveting read - it seems hard to believe that a non-fiction book about medical research could be unputdownable, but it is true! Ben Goldacre writes in a very entertaining way - I laughed out loud quite often - in spite of the fact that he is discussing serious issues. I have not studied science for 30 years, but he has a knack of explaining some potentially complicated subjects in an accessible way, and this book is a science education in itself. I was fascinated by what he had to say about the placebo effect, intrigued by the psychology, and quite horrified at the way in which scientific and medical subjects are reported by certain sections of the media who should really know better. I had a pretty open mind when I started reading - I have always been interested in alternative medicine, as well as mainstream, but he argues his case in a thorough and compelling way, and I found the whole book absolutely fascinating.
If you have ever wondered about the truth behind the MMR debate, or whether you should be taking food supplements, or whether drugs companies are heroes or villains, then this is the book for you. And if you have never read a science book before, then try this one - it is the first of its ilk that I have read, and I was not disappointed.
This is popular science at its best - accessible to a poor humanities graduate, serious subjects written about with a sense of humour, and I came away feeling much the wiser. I am looking forward to his next book!
on 3 July 2012
The has to be one of the most infuriating books I've read in years. That said I mostly liked it.
Ben Goldacre is a doctor who writes for a British newspaper called The Guardian. He mostly writes from the point of view of someone who challenges those "sciencey sounding claims" that people make about the products they make (and goes on to suggest what a more accurate claim would be).
The book is split into 2 sections. First he explains how scientists do research, how they interpret data, and how they disseminate results. That's about 20% of the book. The rest of the book looks at certain areas (like homeopathy or nutritionism) or certain scientists (like Gillian McKeith or Patrick Holford), and debunks their claims.
It's not bad bookwise. It's clearly laid out, and easy to read, but it doesn't assume you're an idiot either. Goldacre's attitude seems to be "If I can explain something difficult clearly enough, you'll understand it."
So why did I get so irritated by the book? It's just the content will drive you mad. You'll probably leave the book thinking "Grrrr" a lot, and that'll irritate you slightly I think.
If I had one criticism of the book, it'd be that it can almost explain an idea to death (or repeat an explanation), and that might irritate you. My suggestion to get round that (if it irritates you) is to treat the chapters as discreet, it'll probably make them more enjoyable.
on 22 November 2011
This book both shocked and entertained me in equal measure.
I loved the way that the author Ben Goldacre, introduced humour into some some pretty heavy subject matter without resorting to "dumbing down" for this purpose. Ironically he exposes how the press and the the many medical charlatans out there resort to these tactics (and worse) in order to dupe the both their readers and the consumer.
I feel very much more informed as a result of reading this book and whilst you can't help but feel increasingly sceptical of all of the "medical" sound bites you are bombarded with, you will feel enlightened that you are now smart enough to see through at least some of them.
I would suggest that this book is a must read that has the potential to make you really re-evaluate so many previously accepted "facts" or misplaced assumptions about the world of medicine, pharmacy and statisical analysis, in general.
If nothing else it will serve as a real eye opener as to how low, many big organisations and supposedly reputable experts, are prepared to stoop, in order to peddle their wares & spurios theories, without any regard what so ever for the true well being of the end user.
Not only will you be wiser but chances are you will also benefit financially by no longer being drawn in to waste your hard earned money on the multitude of products out there, that are being misold to you under false prentences.
Time to wise up folks.
on 20 February 2012
Just finished reading the first edition of this book and the extra chapter on-line. Excellent stuff. It has changed my view on health reporting and the pharmaceutical industry and taught me more on statistics. I'm a bit disappointed to discover that I was taken in to some extent by poor reporting and believed the antioxidants myth (but that could have been the red wine connection).
I agree with all of the praise from others, this book should be essential reading for all, certainly all scientists and journalists.
From my experience, some of this fits with my experience of (non-medical) industrial research. The management tend not to like reports that conclude "no effect" if they wanted a positive result and they like definite conclusions. I always argued that I couldn't give definite conclusions if the evidence didn't support it, but I got the impression that they just though I wasn't trying hard enough. At least my conscience is clear and I hope I resisted the pressure to massage the data by any of the methods that Ben gives but, as he points out, some incorrect data interpretation may be unconscious because of how the human brain works.
If none of the above convinces you, the fact that you'll probably save money on unnecessary vitamin pills and other treatments after reading this book is a good reason to buy it too.