Monday, October 19, 2009

Book Notes: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

This is a fascinating read: Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science", based on his Guardian column of that name, as recommended in Phil Hammond's amusing "Medicine Balls" book. Although it is about science, its the kind of book that an arts graduate (like me!) can read quite happily, as it's funny, fast-paced, satirical, topical but also makes some very telling points about today's culture and its relationship to 'science'.

After an introduction into what good medical trials ought to consist of, (things like large, randomised, trials with control groups to screen out placebo effects) the first major section of the book debunks a lot of the so called 'evidence' supporting much contemporary and alternative medicine (CAM). Although he scorns things such as homeopathy as scientifically dubious, and totally unproven in proper medical trials - it is the current fad of 'nutrition-ism' which is his major target. His disdain for Dr Gillian McKeith PhD ("or to give her her full academic title, ...Gillian McKeith" - ouch!) is well known. What he seeks to expose is the consistent attempts of the vitamin/nutriotionism industry to dress up new-agey cures in "sciencey-sounding-words" to convince the public that their wares are proven in normal large-scale, replicable, scientific trials.

The second major section of the book is an impressive expose of the way in which the pharmaceutical industry is less than transparent in its dealings with journals, doctors and the public. All manner of dodgy scams are exposed, from burying poor results, setting up false comparisons to make the drug look effective, tinkering with base-lines, ends points and sample-sizes to 'tweak' findings - meaning that trials funded by the company developing the drug are consistently four-times more favourable to the drug than independent research!

The final section looks at the public misunderstanding of science -especially the way in which the media, misunderstands, distorts, sensationalises or just makes-up, a lot of what passes as scientific coverage. The media obsession with whether foods 'cause' or 'cure' cancer - with little evidence for the claims, - or claims based on lab data that has no verifiable effect on real human bodies, is ruthlessly exposed, and the worst newspapers named and shamed. Another media tactic that he deals with is the disproportionate reporting of risk. A headline might scream that 'ibuprofen doubles the risk of heart-attack' - but doubles what, and for whom? If it doubles an infinitesimally minute number, then so what? If it doubles that infinitesimally minute number for a minute fraction of at-risk people, then the risk needs to be factored down even further! Goldacre's book certainly gives the reader many laughs, but also arms them with many useful tool with which to interrogate the claims of all manner of therapies, and the journalists who report on them.

Reading isn't often both as informative - and as much fun as this!

No comments: