Book review: Bad science

This brief book review by Joachim Payne was first published in the 2011/2012 Mill Hill Essays.

This book has been a permanent feature in Amazon’s top ten Popular Science publications since its release three years ago. The Daily Telegraph called it “a crash course in interpretation of medical data”; The Times, “Unmissable” and New Scientist “One of the essential reads of the year”. That’s all pretty impressive for a book with chapters on evidence-based medicine, the correct application of statistics and cognitive biases (or, as he puts it “why clever people believe stupid things”). As my old anatomy professor once taught me, “it’s not just what you know; it’s what you think you know that isn’t so”. We all know you have to drink at least eight glasses of water a day, right? But is that really true, and if so, how do we know it to be true? Much of what is written about science and medicine in the mass media does not stand up to scrutiny. Hardly a week goes by without some new medical scare story hitting the headlines and much of it, like the MMR scandal, has the potential to harm lives and undermine public trust in research.

Ben Goldacre – psychiatric registrar, Oxford research fellow, journalist and author – is well-placed to comment on such matters. His humorous style and elegant dissection of scientific misinformation cut to the very heart of the public’s understanding, or lack thereof. Big Pharma,“detoxing”, homeopathy, the dietary supplements industry, lazy journalism and (Dr Goldacre’s personal nemesis) Gillian McKeith all come in for scathing criticism. But, he concludes, scientists themselves are also partly to blame. He stresses the need for scientists to become much more savvy when dealing with the press and better at communicating more directly and accessibly with a public who largely want to understand.

Bad science, by Ben Goldacre is published by Fourth Estate, 2008.

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