Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Book review - Bad Science by Ben Goldacre - Part I

Writing a popular science book calls for prose that is informative yet accessible, informal enough not to appear stuffy and yet not patronising or dumbed down, and above all prose that is enjoyably readable without losing intellectual gravitas. Ben Goldacre's newly published tome, Bad Science, ticks all those boxes - and then some. Perhaps not surprising given that the material is largely based on his blog, published as a regular column in The Guardian. Having blagged a free review copy from the publishers Fourth Estate, my aim is for my next two posts to be a review of the book, and a discussion of issue arising. Do note at this point that I'm hardly alone in reviewing the book - for instance jaycueaitch has a very good review on his blog Letting Off Steam

Firstly, a clarification. Tempting though it must have been for Dr. Goldacre to compile a compendium of his blog posts/Guardian columns, (which some 'science communicators have been known to do...) he has heroically resisted and, whilst remaining faithful to his sarcastic and witty style, the book expands on previously published work by adding updated perspectives on the road to rooting out the abuse of science.

Opening up by debunking several examples of so-called detox equipment, and the deplorable bullshit behind Brain Gym, Goldacre starts as he means to go on - rather than simply listing laughable examples of how science is misused, mis-reported and mis-understood (amusing though that exercise would be), he uses salient examples to illustrate broader principles. I'd say this encourages the reader to think about each anecdote as being illustrative of the bigger picture being discussed, a strategy used to devastating effect in the chapters that follow.

The book switches gear now and focuses on pills, potions and peddlers - firstly, ointments, creams and the like sold with scientific sounding components but with little or no evidence to back up the manufacturer's claims for efficacy. This chapter touches on how cleverly-worded marketing allows companies to circumvent such strictures as apply to academic science, whilst appearing to wield the authority of laboratory experts - again, a theme revisited later.

As for the next chapter, on homeopathy, this is where we find some of the real meaty issues Goldacre discusses. Firstly, though, I'd recommend that the reader downloads a two-part documentary on the placebo effect (parts one and two) and listens to them alongside reading this chapter, as together they form a fascinating thesis into homeopathic 'remedies,' the intriguing placebo effect, and its implications for mainstream medicine. This is something the book manages to achieve with aplomb - instead of dismissing out of hand the likes of homeopathy, nutritionism and other 'alternative' practices as quackery for which no evidence exists, Goldacre delves deeper and explores why such practices become popular, credits them with giving out largely sensible dietary and lifestyle, and even takes salutary lessons from such practices and shows how mainstream medicine could learn from them.

And here's the crux. Whilst verging on the polemic at times, which not every reader will appreciate nor agree with (I happen to do so most of the time, but then many might not), this book attempts to explain pseudo-science rather than just describe it - we get reasons, causes, and more. Scathing in places, but only where evidence justifies such harsh criticism, the first few chapters are more-or-less as good as popular science writing gets - and as I'll come back to in Part Two of this review, it gets better once we are introduced to the Uber-Nutritionistas McKeith and Holford...


HolfordWatch said...

It's a nice idea to listen to the placebo programmes alongside the first part of the book.

Similarly, for the section on the nutritionists, it might be worth people listening to Ben Goldacre's previous Radio 4 2-parter on the Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists.

teekblog said...

ah, indeed - missed that one, thanks for pointing out that show, duly downloaded...!!

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