Book Reviews Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre is a doctor of medicine as well as a journalist and media personality. He has been writing in The Guardian (as well as on his website called about quackery, various instances of pseudo-science, debunking snake oil salesmen and particularly evidence based medicine and reporting of science news in the media.

Bad Science is his first book, and is much more than a collection of columns from the Guardian. It’s actually unexpectedly brilliantly written as well as being persuasive, clear, well argued and well referenced.

In addition to being convincing and enjoyable, Bad Science also gives the reader a “rubbish science detector” and has a very accessible report of how science, and especially a medical trial should be conducted.

Goldacre also shows how to decipher a media report of a scientific discovery or study, particularly a health related one and how to argue with believers of the more outlandish health ideas.

The targets of Bad Science are varied, from true snake oil salesmen to the Bad Big Pharma. Particular attention is paid to homeopathy, with Goldacre presenting very convincing evidence of its lack of effectiveness. He also deals with several other bizarre schemes including “Brain Gym” to which UK children were subjected in many state schools as well as totally bogus claims of manufacturers of cosmetic creams.

A lot of space (and I mean a lot) is given to the claims made by those who call themselves nutritionists with a particularly enjoyable if comparatively restrained hatchet job on Gillian McKeith.

But it’s not just the supposedly alternative medicine that Goldacre targets. He gives a chapter to the bad behaviour of the Big Pharma (describing such transgressions as suppression of clinical trials and research papers, manipulations of study designs, marketing techniques used to aggressively sell drugs) and widely report media coverage of the MRSA and MMR scares.

The chapter about placebo is especially fascinating. It ought to be be a necessary reading for all that try to make their mind up on on what and why might SEEM to work even in the light of clear experimental results to the contrary.

Bad Science is an excellent book which makes very important points in a easily accessible, funny, intelligent way but achieves a clear argument throughout. Its focus is mostly on UK cases, though all the general ideas apply everywhere.

Highly recommended, and clear five out of five.

Paperback, 352 pages

Fourth Estate, September 2008