Have you ever wondered how one day the media can assert that alcohol is bad for us and the next unashamedly run a story touting the benefits of daily alcohol consumption? Or how a drug that is pulled off the market for causing heart attacks ever got approved in the first place? How can average readers, who aren't medical doctors or Ph.D.s in biochemistry, tell what they should be paying attention to and what's, well, just more bullshit?
Ben Goldacre has made a point of exposing quack doctors and nutritionists, bogus credentialing programs, and biased scientific studies. He has also taken the media to task for its willingness to throw facts and proof out the window. But he's not here just to tell you what's wrong. Goldacre is here to teach you how to evaluate placebo effects, double-blind studies, and sample sizes, so that you can recognize bad science when you see it. You're about to feel a whole lot better.
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For what he's talking about -- "brain gym", which I was subjected to, for example, or homeopathy -- he's totally right, but the way he talks just sets my teeth on edge. I'm quite sure we couldn't get on if we got onto questions with subjective answers. So yeah, his writing about science is good, and perfectly clear to a relative layman (I did a biology AS level, and my mother's a doctor, though), but something about his attitude just narks me.
I mean. "The people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they have denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought from the past two hundred years..."
That's a direct quote from Goldacre. And watch! I can do it too: "The people who [write books like Bad Science] are [science graduates] with no understanding of [the important things in life], who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they [do not understand the power of stories, and resent their limitation of thinking that Western thought is the pinnacle of human achievement]."
Oh, and SSRIs: to be honest, I do subscribe to the theory that if they work for me, I'd rather not question it. (And they do. I haven't reacted to them in the exact way I'd been told I would: I had no side-effects, for example, and they began to work fairly quickly. Within a couple of weeks, all the major symptoms of my depression were gone, and though I wept when my grandfather died while I was on antidepressants, my feelings were in proportion to the event, unlike when my dad's mother died and I took to my bed for a week. I have not experienced any increase in anxiety, or that much trumpeted criticism that SSRIs make people want to kill themselves.) So I'm probably too biased to accept a word that Goldacre says on the subject, even forgetting the fact that a close relative has done research into antidepressants and I typed up their results! Of course it would be galling to accept that SSRIs are rubbish and I've been duped. But still, even trying to keep my own bias in mind, that doesn't sit right with me.
I wonder -- has Goldacre written anything about his own biases? My humanities degree has at least taught me that no one acts without some kind of stimulation. If you're looking at post-colonialism in literature, it's probably because the theory speaks to you (in my case, because I'm Welsh and some postcolonial theory can be applied; for others it's the issue of kyriarchy, the way that all kinds of things intersect, so that racism sometimes looks and acts a bit like sexism or homophobia, and so the theory can be applied elsewhere). If you're a feminist, you can find sexism in every text you read (and I'm not saying it isn't there, or you don't experience it as there). More harmlessly, perhaps, I'm a lover of Gawain, and I can interpret any given text as sympathetic to Gawain based on the social mores of its time -- or it's a shitty book, of course.
So yeah, watching Ben Goldacre froth in this book made me sort of want to know why it's so important to him. That's a bit of an ad hominem attack on his work, I suppose, but I do wonder how careful Ben Goldacre is to make sure he doesn't just find the results he's looking for, as he accuses other people of doing, or if he assumes that because he's debunking it in other people, he's immune.more
Less cool is an infelicity of language that he needs to look at. There's a couple of places where he either refers to the reader as "he", or to doctors as being male. Somewhere else he says that the Toys R Us microscope can amusingly be used to look at "your sperm". None of it is egregious, but there's enough that I noticed it in the first place and then noticed more of it. And FFS, he's only mid-thirties - no excuse for not either paying attention to this or already doing it reflexively.more
Edit - I have edited the review as the book is now available in the US. Truly a worthwhile read, one up for us against big Pharma!
Until recently this book was not available in the US as books that attack big Pharma, alternative medicine gurus (especially the tv variety) and sacred cows like the MMR-Autism myth get sued just to stop publication even if there is no hope of winning the suit.
This is an important book and illuminates the part the media plays in the dissemination of information - truths, half-truths and outright (but very profitable) lies in the medical, health and nutrition fields and why we are taken in. Why the truth is both deliberately and in a very cavalier manner hidden from us by all that stand to make a buck, even peripherally like some columnist for a news rag.
It also explains, after a fashion, the still not properly understood placebo effect and why therapies that can have no possible physical effects whatsoever, particularly homeopathy with its dilution of the active ingredient to the nth degree, still work! We are amazing! The book is too.more