Bad Science by Ben Goldacre reviewed

I picked this book up at Smiths in Marylebone station, encouraged by the promise of an irreverent look at scientific claims and the media. It didn’t disappoint.

In a strange way, the content of the book segued rather well with my recent blog comments on experts. I mentioned how easy it seems to be to become an “expert” and get media coverage, and noted what experts were most sought after in 2009 by the UK media.

And it’s very timely, with Andrew Wakefield, the man behind the campaign against the MMR vaccine, censured last week by the General Medical Council; the book has a lengthy discussion of the MMR story.

Goldacre’s book is borne of the very frustration that our UK media has a nasty habit of sensationalising whatever it can get its hands on. And as we are all obsessed by our health, that often means using a survey – however poorly grounded – and taking its results out of context to make a headline.

It reminded me of Richard Hammond’s “Should I Worry About….?” TV programme, which investigated a tabloid claim that farmed salmon was a health hazard because of certain trace elements it allegedly contained. He duely investigated to discover the big headline was hardly backed by solid evidence.

Bad Science doesn’t just have a pop at poor journalism, he also blames sloppy research for delivering unbalanced source material in the first place. And he points out that the pharmaceutical industry is no worse than TV diet and health food “experts” – except the latter normally refute any challenge to their affirmations with bluff and bluster.

All of this could be avoided, says Goldacre, if medical and research folk made more effort to communicate clearly, and journalists took more trouble to investigate and write balanced stories. But in the UK today, the power of the hyped headline is much more exciting.

The book’s style, while it does go into some detail in places, is full of entertaining asides that reminded me of Willie Rushton’s Superpig – his antidote to Shirley Conran’s infamous volume and one of my all-time favourites.

And there is a serious message. These bandwagons can have significant negative effects; Goldacre reckons that the hoohaa over the MMR vaccine and possible links with autism was based on a flawed logic. But as a result, he says, many thousands have missed the benefit of vaccination.

For the seriously interested, there’s a website – www.badscience.net – where further frustrations are aired on an ongoing basis.

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