Are you a fan of bad science? As a concept, probably not. But the Guardian column of the same name by Dr Ben Goldacre is required reading for anyone who delights in seeing the peddlers of biased tosh called to account.1 According to Hippocrates, ‘there are, in fact, two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.’ Over two thousand years later, Goldacre has condensed this observation into something pithier; ‘Bullshit is intensely disempowering.’ So why is there so much of it about?
In his new book (also called Bad science),2 Goldacre bemoans the fact that although evidence-based medicine ‘contains some of the cleverest ideas from the last two centuries and has saved millions of lives, there has never been a single exhibit on the subject in the National Science Museum.’ And that seems to be the problem. Science has been so successful in helping us understand the present, predict the future, and live in a safe, entertaining technoworld cocooned from risk, that we take it for granted. Science is so reliable that just about every gadget we buy works, without us having to take it to bits and understand how. Most of us don’t even know how a plane takes off or why the light comes on when you flick a switch. It just does, OK?
As the son of a research chemist, I devoured bad science, not so much for its exposé of all those who con us with the nonsense of pseudoscience, but for its reawakening of my love of science. As a boy, I collected rocks and was transfixed by chemistry experiments. At school, I won a national prize for locking myself in an airing cupboard and using stroboscopic photography to capture the deflection of bipolar liquids in an electromagnetic field. With a bit of maths, I managed to calculate the charges on individual molecules. It never got me a girlfriend, but it was fascinating.
Goldacre has written this book not just for those who already have a passion for science, but for those who could do with one. Bad science is all around us and Goldacre takes great relish in hunting it down and exposing it. He warms up with soft targets of detox footbaths and ear candles, bursts the balloons of Brain Gym® and homeopathy, blows the £30 billion food supplements industry out of the water, and turns his sights on the wilful distortion of data by the £300 billion pharmaceutical industry. He is, in the best instincts of journalism, a truth seeker trying to protect us from those who peddle pseudo-scientific guff. This isn’t harmless nonsense. Many have died in the name of bad science.
Goldacre reserves particular scorn for those in the mainstream media who give authority and publicity to charlatans. And he despairs at the great hole in our culture that has left the vast majority of us unable to evaluate their claims in order to assess their scientific credibility. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, as Henry Ford once claimed, then it snacks on science all day.
I’m not sure what type of doctor Goldacre is. He ‘works fulltime in the NHS’, but keeps his place of work a secret from all those he’s upset along the way. He’s certainly brave and there are plenty of people hoping he’ll come a cropper. I’d urge you to read his book. It’ll rekindle your scientific leanings and give you strength to contest the unproven dross that’s foisted on you. Polyclinics, anyone?
- Goldacre B. Bad science. London: Fourth Estate, 2008.G