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Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

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Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

4/5 (67 ratings)
362 pages
6 hours
Oct 12, 2010

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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.

Oct 12, 2010

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About the author

Ben Goldacre is a doctor and science writer who wrote the 'Bad Science' column in the Guardian from 2003 to 2011. He has made a number of documentaries for BBC Radio 4, and his first book Bad Science reached Number One in the nonfiction charts, has sold over 500,000 copies. . His second bestselling book, Bad Pharma, was published in 2013.

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Bad Science - Ben Goldacre


It’s easy to laugh at quacks—but this book is not about easy targets or individuals. It follows a natural crescendo, from the foolishness of quacks, via the credence they are given in the mainstream media, through the tricks of the fifty-five-billion-dollar food supplements industry, the evils of the six-hundred-billion-dollar pharmaceuticals industry, the tragedy of science reporting, and on to cases where people have wound up in prison, derided, or dead, simply through the poor understanding of statistics and evidence that pervades our society.

At the time of C. P. Snow’s famous lecture on the two cultures of science and the humanities half a century ago, arts graduates simply ignored us. Today, scientists and doctors find themselves outnumbered and outgunned by vast armies of individuals who feel entitled to pass judgment on matters of evidence—an admirable aspiration—without troubling themselves to obtain a basic understanding of the issues.

At school you were taught about chemicals in test tubes, equations to describe motion, and maybe something on photosynthesis—about which more later—but in all likelihood you were taught nothing about death, risk, statistics, and the science of what will kill or cure you. The hole in our culture is gaping: evidence-based medicine, the ultimate applied science, contains some of the cleverest ideas from the past two centuries; it has saved millions of lives, but there has never once been a single exhibit on the subject in London’s Science Museum.

This is not for a lack of interest. We are obsessed with health—half of all science stories in the media are medical—and are repeatedly bombarded with sciencey-sounding claims and stories. But as you will see, we get our information from the very people who have repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be incapable of reading, interpreting, and bearing reliable witness to the scientific evidence.

Before we get started, let me map out the territory.

First, we will look at what it means to do an experiment, to see the results with your own eyes, and judge whether they fit with a given theory, or whether an alternative is more compelling. You may find these early steps childish and patronizing—the examples are certainly refreshingly absurd—but they all have been promoted credulously and with great authority in the mainstream media. We will look at the attraction of sciencey-sounding stories about our bodies and the confusion they can cause.

Then we will move on to homeopathy, not because it’s important or dangerous—it’s not—but because it is the perfect model for teaching evidence-based medicine. Homeopathy pills are, after all, empty little sugar pills that seem to work, and so they embody everything you need to know about fair tests of a treatment and how we can be misled into thinking that any intervention is more effective than it really is. You will learn all there is to know about how to do a trial properly and how to spot a bad one. Hiding in the background is the placebo effect, probably the most fascinating and misunderstood aspect of human healing, which goes far beyond a mere sugar pill: it is counterintuitive, it is strange, it is the true story of mind-body healing, and it is far more interesting than any made-up nonsense about therapeutic quantum energy patterns. We will review the evidence on its power, and you will draw your own conclusions.

Then we move on to the bigger fish. Nutritionists are alternative therapists but have somehow managed to brand themselves as men and women of science. Their errors are much more interesting than those of the homeopaths, because they have a grain of real science to them, and that makes them not only more interesting but also more dangerous, because the real threat from cranks is not that their customers might die—there is the odd case, although it seems crass to harp on about them—but that they systematically undermine the public’s understanding of the very nature of evidence.

We will see the rhetorical sleights of hand and amateurish errors that have led to your being repeatedly misled about food and nutrition, and how this new industry acts as a distraction from the genuine lifestyle risk factors for ill health, as well as its more subtle but equally alarming impact on the way we see ourselves and our bodies, specifically in the widespread move to medicalize social and political problems, to conceive of them in a reductionist, biomedical framework, and peddle commodifiable solutions, particularly in the form of pills and faddish diets. I will show you evidence that a vanguard of startling wrongness is entering British universities, alongside genuine academic research into nutrition. Then we apply these same tools to proper medicine and see the tricks used by the pharmaceutical industry to pull the wool over the eyes of doctors and patients.

Next we will examine how the media promote the public misunderstanding of science, their single-minded passion for pointless nonstories, and their basic misunderstandings of statistics and evidence, which illustrate the very core of why we do science: to prevent ourselves from being misled by our own atomized experiences and prejudices. Finally, in the part of the book I find most worrying, we will see how people in positions of great power, who should know better, still commit basic errors, with grave consequences, and we will see how the media’s cynical distortion of evidence in two specific health scares reached dangerous and frankly grotesque extremes. It’s your job to notice, as we go, how incredibly prevalent this stuff is, but also to think what you might do about it.

You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into. But by the end of this book you’ll have the tools to win—or at least understand—any argument you choose to initiate, whether it’s on miracle cures, MMR, the evils of big pharma, the likelihood of a given vegetable preventing cancer, the dumbing down of science reporting, dubious health scares, the merits of anecdotal evidence, the relationship between body and mind, the science of irrationality, the medicalization of everyday life, and more. You’ll have seen the evidence behind some very popular deceptions, but along the way you’ll also have picked up everything useful there is to know about research, levels of evidence, bias, statistics (relax), the history of science, antiscience movements and quackery, and fallen over just some of the amazing stories that the natural sciences can tell us about the world along the way.

It won’t be even slightly difficult, because this is the only science lesson where I can guarantee that the people making the stupid mistakes won’t be you. And if, by the end, you reckon you might still disagree with me, then I offer you this: you’ll still be wrong, but you’ll be wrong with a lot more panache and flair than you could possibly manage right now.



I spend a lot of time talking to people who disagree with me—I would go so far as to say that it’s my favorite leisure activity—and repeatedly I meet individuals who are eager to share their views on science despite the fact that they have never done an experiment. They have never tested an idea for themselves, using their own hands, or seen the results of that test, using their own eyes, and they have never thought carefully about what those results mean for the idea they are testing, using their own brain. To these people science is a monolith, a mystery, and an authority, rather than a method.

Dismantling our early, more outrageous pseudoscientific claims is an excellent way to learn the basics of science, partly because science is largely about disproving theories, but also because the lack of scientific knowledge among miracle cure artistes, marketers, and journalists gives us some very simple ideas to test. Their knowledge of science is rudimentary, so as well as making basic errors of reasoning, they rely on notions like magnetism, oxygen, water, energy, and toxins—ideas from high school-level science and all very much within the realm of kitchen chemistry.

Detox and the Theater of Goo

Since you’ll want your first experiment to be authentically messy, we’ll start with detox. Detox footbaths have been promoted un-critically in some very embarrassing articles in the New York Daily News, the Telegraph, the Mirror, The Sunday Times (London), GQ magazine, and various TV shows. Here is a taster from the New York Daily News: it’s a story about Ally Shapiro, a fourteen-year-old who went to a detox center run by Roni DeLuz, author of 21 Pounds in 21 Days: The Martha’s Vineyard Diet.

The first day I did it, says Shapiro, the water was completely black by the end. By day three, twenty minutes in the footbath generated a copper-colored sludge—the color of the flushed buildup from her joints related to arthritis, DeLuz explained. The hypothesis from these companies is very clear: your body is full of toxins, whatever those may be; your feet are filled with special pores (discovered by ancient Chinese scientists, no less); you put your feet in the bath, the toxins are extracted, and the water goes brown. Is the brown in the water because of the toxins? Or is that merely theater?

One way to test this is to go along and have an Aqua Detox treatment yourself at a health spa, beauty salon, or any of the thousands of places they are available online, and take your feet out of the bath when the therapist leaves the room. If the water goes brown without your feet in it, then it wasn’t your feet or your toxins that did it. That is a controlled experiment; everything is the same in both conditions, except for the presence or absence of your feet.

There are disadvantages with this experimental method (and there is an important lesson here—that we must often weigh up the benefits and practicalities of different forms of research, which will become important in later chapters). From a practical perspective, the feet out experiment involves subterfuge, which may make you uncomfortable. But it is also expensive: one session of Aqua Detox will cost more than the components to build your own detox device, a perfect model of the real one.

You will need:

• One car battery charger

• Two large nails

• Kitchen salt

• Warm water

• One Barbie doll

• A full analytic laboratory (optional)

This experiment involves electricity and water. In a world of hurricane hunters and volcanologists, we must accept that everyone sets their own level of risk tolerance. You might well give yourself a nasty electric shock if you perform this experiment at home, and it could easily blow the wiring in your house. It is not safe, but it is in some sense relevant to your understanding of MMR, homeopathy, postmodernist critiques of science, and the evils of big pharma. DO NOT BUILD IT.

When you switch your Barbie Detox machine on, you will see that the water goes brown, due to a very simple process called electrolysis; the iron electrodes rust, essentially, and the brown rust goes into the water. But there is something more happening in there, something you might half remember from chemistry at school. There is salt in the water. The proper scientific term for household salt is sodium chloride in solution, this means that there are chloride ions floating around, which have a negative charge (and sodium ions, which have a positive charge). The red connector on your car battery charger is a positive electrode, and here negatively charged electrons are stolen away from the negatively charged chloride ions, resulting in the production of free chlorine gas.

So chlorine gas is given off by the Barbie Detox bath, and indeed by the Aqua Detox footbath, and the people who use this product have elegantly woven that distinctive chlorine aroma into their story: it’s the chemicals, they explain; it’s the chlorine coming out of your body, from all the plastic packaging on your food and all those years bathing in chemical swimming pools. It has been interesting to see the color of the water change and smell the chlorine leaving my body, says one testimonial for the similar product Emerald Detox. At another sales site: "The first time she tried the Q2 [Energy Spa], her business partner said his eyes were burning from all the chlorine that was coming out of her, leftover [sic] from her childhood and early adulthood." All that chemically chlorine gas that has accumulated in your body over the years. It’s a frightening thought.

But there is something else we need to check. Are there toxins in the water? Here we encounter a new problem: What do they mean by toxins? I’ve asked the manufacturers of many detox products this question time and again, but they demur. They wave their hands, they talk about stressful modern lifestyles, they talk about pollution, they talk about junk food, but they will not tell me the name of a single chemical that I can measure. What toxins are being extracted from the body with your treatment? I ask. Tell me what is in the water, and I will look for it in a laboratory. I have never been given an answer.

After much of their hedging and fudging, I chose two chemicals pretty much at random: creatinine and urea. These are common breakdown products from your body’s metabolism, and your kidneys get rid of them in urine. Through a friend, I went for a genuine Aqua Detox treatment, took a sample of brown water, and used the disproportionately state-of-the-art analytic facilities of St. Mary’s Hospital in London to hunt for these two chemical toxins. There were no toxins in the water. Just lots of brown, rusty iron.

Now, with findings like these, scientists might take a step back and revise their ideas about what is going on with the footbaths. We don’t really expect the manufacturers to do that, but what they say in response to these findings is very interesting, at least to me, because it sets up a pattern that we will see repeated throughout the world of pseudoscience: instead of addressing the criticisms, or embracing the new findings in a new model, they seem to shift the goalposts and retreat, crucially, into untestable positions.

Some of them now deny that toxins come out in the footbath (which would stop me measuring them); your body is somehow informed that it is time to release toxins in the normal way—whatever that is, and whatever the toxins are—only more so. Some of them now admit that the water goes a bit brown without your feet in it, but not as much. Many of them tell lengthy stories about the bioenergetic field, which they say cannot be measured except by how well you are feeling. All of them talk about how stressful modern life is.

That may well be true. But it has nothing to do with their footbath, which is all about theater, and theater is the common theme for all detox products, as we shall see. On with the brown goo.

Ear Candles

You might think that Hopi ear candles are easy targets. But their efficacy has still been cheerfully promoted by The Independent, The Observer, and the BBC, to name just a few respected British news outlets. They pop up endlessly in American local papers desperate to fill space, from the Alameda Times-Star to the Syracuse Post-Standard. Since journalists like to present themselves as authoritative purveyors of scientific information, I’ll let the internationally respected BBC explain how these hollow wax tubes, Hopi ear candles, will detox your body: The candles work by vaporizing their ingredients once lit, causing convectional air flow towards the first chamber of the ear. The candle creates a mild suction which lets the vapors gently massage the eardrum and auditory canal. Once the candle is placed in the ear it forms a seal which enables wax and other impurities to be drawn out of the ear. The proof comes when you open a candle up and discover that it is filled with a familiar waxy orange substance, which must surely be earwax. If you’d like to test this yourself, you will need: an ear, a clothespin, some poster putty, a dusty floor, some scissors, and two ear candles.

If you light one ear candle, and hold it over some dust, you will find little evidence of any suction. Before you rush to publish your finding in a peer-reviewed academic journal, someone has beaten you to it: a paper published in the medical journal Laryngoscope used expensive tympanometry equipment and found—as you have—that ear candles exert no suction. There is no truth to the claim that doctors dismiss alternative therapies out of hand.

But what if the wax and toxins are being drawn into the candle by some other, more esoteric route, as is often claimed?

For this you will need to do something called a controlled experiment, comparing the results of two different situations, where one is the experimental condition, the other is the control condition, and the only difference is the thing you’re interested in testing. This is why you have two candles.

Put one ear candle in someone’s ear, as per the manufacturer’s instructions, and leave it there until it burns down.¹ Put the other candle in the clothespin, and stand it upright using the Blu-Tack; this is the control arm in your experiment. The point of a control is simple: we need to minimize the differences between the two setups, so that the only real difference between them is the single factor you’re studying, which in this case must be: Is it my ear that produces the orange goo?

Take your two candles back inside and cut them open. In the ear candle, you will find a waxy orange substance. In the picnic table control, you will find a waxy orange substance. There is only one internationally recognized method for identifying something as earwax: pick some up on the end of your finger, and touch it with your tongue. If your experiment had the same results as mine, both of them taste a lot like candle wax.

Does the ear candle remove earwax from your ears? You can’t tell, but a published study followed patients during a full program of ear candling and found no reduction. For all that you might have learned something useful here about the experimental method, there is something more significant you should have picked up: it is expensive, tedious, and time-consuming to test every whim concocted out of thin air by therapists selling unlikely miracle cures. But it can be done, and it is done.

Detox Patches and the Hassle Barrier

Last in our brown sludge detox triptych comes the detox foot patch. These are available in most health food stores or from your local Avon lady (this is true). They look like teabags, with a foil backing that you stick onto your foot using an adhesive edging, before you get into bed. When you wake up the next morning, there is a strange-smelling, sticky brown sludge attached to the bottom of your foot and inside the teabag. This sludge—you may spot a pattern here—is said to be toxins. Except it’s not. By now you can probably come up with a quick experiment to show that. I’ll give you one option in a footnote.²

An experiment is one way of determining whether an observable effect—sludge—is related to a given process. But you can also pull things apart on a more theoretical level. If you examine the list of ingredients in these patches, you will see that they have been very carefully designed.

The first thing on the list is pyroligneous acid, or wood vinegar. This is a brown powder that is highly hygroscopic, a word that simply means it attracts and absorbs water, like those little silica bags that come in electronic equipment packaging. If there is any moisture around, wood vinegar will absorb it and make a brown mush that feels warm against your skin.

What is the other major ingredient, impressively listed as hydrolyzed carbohydrate? A carbohydrate is a long string of sugar molecules all stuck together. Starch is a carbohydrate, for example, and in your body this is broken down gradually into the individual sugar molecules by your digestive enzymes, so that you can absorb it. The process of breaking down a carbohydrate molecule into its individual sugars is called hydrolysis. So hydrolyzed carbohydrate, as you might have worked out by now, for all that it sounds sciencey, basically means sugar. Obviously sugar goes sticky in sweat.

Is there anything more to these patches than that? Yes. There is a new device, which we should call the hassle barrier, another recurring theme in the more advanced forms of foolishness that we shall be reviewing later. There are huge numbers of different brands, and many of them offer excellent and lengthy documents full of science to prove that they work: they have diagrams and graphs and the appearance of scienciness, but the key elements are missing. There are experiments, they say, which prove that detox patches do something…but they don’t tell you what these experiments consisted of, or what their methods were; they offer only decorous graphs of results.

To focus on the methods is to miss the point of these apparent experiments: they aren’t about the methods; they’re about the positive result, the graph, and the appearance of science. These are superficially plausible totems to frighten off a questioning journalist, a hassle barrier, and this is another recurring theme, which we will see—in more complex forms—around many of the more advanced areas of bad science. You will come to love the details.

If It’s not Science, What is it?

But there is something important happening here, with detox, and I don’t think it’s enough just to say, All this is nonsense. The detox phenomenon is interesting because it represents one of the most grandiose innovations of marketers, lifestyle gurus, and alternative therapists: the invention of a whole new physiological process. In terms of basic human biochemistry, detox is a meaningless concept. It doesn’t cleave nature at the joints. There is nothing on the detox system in a medical textbook. That burgers and beer can have negative effects on your body is certainly true, for a number of reasons; but the notion that they leave a specific residue, which can be extruded by a specific process, a physiological system called detox, is a marketing invention.

If you look at a metabolic flowchart, the gigantic wall-size maps of all the molecules in your body, detailing the way that food is broken down into its constituent parts, and then those components are converted between each other, and then those new building blocks are assembled into muscle, and bone, and tongue, and bile, and sweat, and booger, and hair, and skin, and sperm, and brain, and everything that makes you you, it’s hard to pick out one thing that is the detox system.

Because it has no scientific meaning, detox is much better understood as a cultural product. Like the best pseudoscientific inventions, it deliberately blends useful common sense with outlandish, medicalized fantasy. In some respects, how much you buy into this reflects how self-dramatizing you want to be or, in less damning terms, how much you enjoy ritual in your daily life. When I go through busy periods of partying, drinking, sleep deprivation, and convenience eating, I usually decide—eventually—that I need a bit of a rest. So I have a few nights in, reading at home, and eating more salad than usual. Models and celebrities, meanwhile, detox with Master Cleanse and the Fruit Flush Diet.

On one thing we must be absolutely clear, because this is a recurring theme throughout the world of bad science: there is nothing wrong with the notion of eating healthily and abstaining from various risk factors for ill health like excessive alcohol use. But that is not what detox is about; these are quick-fix health drives, constructed from the outset as short term, while lifestyle risk factors for ill health have their impact over a lifetime. But I am even willing to agree that some people might try a five-day detox and remember (or even learn) what it’s like to eat vegetables, and that gets no criticism from me.

What’s wrong is to pretend that these rituals are based in science or even that they are new. Almost every religion and culture have some form of purification or abstinence ritual, with fasting, a change in diet, bathing, or any number of other interventions, most of which are dressed up in mumbo jumbo. They’re not presented as science, because they come from an era before scientific terms entered the lexicon, but still: Yom Kippur in Judaism, Ramadan in Islam, and all manner of other similar rituals in Christianity, Hinduism, the Baha’i faith, Buddhism, and Jainism are each about abstinence and purification (among other things). Such rituals, like detox regimes, are conspicuously and—to some believers too, I’m sure—spuriously precise. Hindu fasts, for example, if strictly observed, run from the previous day’s sunset until forty-eight minutes after the next day’s

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What people think about Bad Science

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  • (3/5)
    While this book confirmed everything I already suspected about science and the media I found it a bit dry. I don't think it would appeal to non science geeks
  • (4/5)
    audiobook, crooks, education, greed, medical, nonfiction, reference, science, social-issues, whispersync, fraud A detailed reminder to verify claims and rationality of products that are aimed at desperate people reaching for an answer and finding snake oil instead. Very well worthwhile read. Jonathan Cowley does come off rather pedantic, but that does not diminish the value of the material.
  • (5/5)
    Brilliant. Funny, educative, committed, deeply informed. The clinical trial - blind, controlled, randomised, peer-reviewed - is the hero of the book. I was familiar with it in outline but Ben really makes clear how it works and why it matters; and far from blinding us with science he shows it to be common sense pursued to the utterance. There are tricksters aplenty and some villains, the most egregious being the guy who persuaded Mbeki to torpedo the the South African AIDS programme . We also learn how the media, especially it seems the British, swallow fistfulls of alarmist nonsense and ignore anything resembling real science. He explains not just what happens but how and why. Ben tells great yarns with good jokes (getting "Dr" McKeith's degree for his dead cat is one of the best) but an underlying high seriousness. Appreciate how he does not blame us ordinary folk for credulousness, but calls on both the scientists and the media to take proper responsibility for their communication.
  • (5/5)
    I wish all doctors, scientists, and (especially) journalists could write like this. Unlikely, I know, but they could at least read Goldacre to see how it's done. A fine, inspiring piece of work, recommended for anyone who has to weight up the claims of medical researchers and alternative-medicine practitioners (and that's al of us these days).
  • (5/5)
    An entertaining and scientifically solid look at critical thinking. The author discusses a number of places where people go wrong in critical thinking, and uses examples from contemporary society to illustrate them. His writing style is casual enough to be accessible without talking down to readers and it has enough meat to still be interesting to someone who is already steeped in the information he's detailing (I did get a bit of a laugh toward the end when he says in a footnote that he'd be intrigued to know how far you would have to go to find someone who could tell you the difference between mean, median, and mode - he obviously didn't gear this book at those of us who have years of statistics under our belts). The book was fun and informative, and gives a pretty good rundown of the dispute over vaccines. I do feel, however, that he tends to downplay the risks of sloppy thinking throughout much of the book, and seems to think that homeopathy isn't really that serious a problem. I know too many people who are taking their kids strictly to homeopaths to buy into that. Otherwise, a good, solid, entertaining outing.
  • (3/5)
    Not much unfamiliar here- but then, this is the sort of debunkery I enjoy, so it stands to reason that I've come across most of the examples here. Goldacre's got a whimsical tone that I enjoyed, a matter-of-fact "you're not stupid, your brain just isn't trained to deal with this sort of obfuscation and complexity" attitude. Recommended, especially if you have ever believed anything presented in the media as a staggeringly important, health-affecting statistic.
  • (5/5)
    A great book that is about how science and scientific language is manipulated to be used by pseudo-scientific and bad products services and people to spread misinformation. This is a book about scientific thinking and it should be a set text in every school.
    Ben Goldacre is very clear and readable. If you have ever thought "that doesn't sound right... but i cant't work out why" this is the book for you. It will give you the tools to be able to listen to an explaination of a scientific theory or process and analyse it, break it down and work out if you are listening to complete bullshit or the real deal.
  • (3/5)
    I really liked Goldacre's TED talks and was excited to read this book but was left a little disappointed. Some of the information was really basic (which I expected) and there's significant time devoted to debunking things like homeopathy which I already new was bunk (again, which I expected), but the only real thing that bothered me was how entire chapters of the book were devoted to debunking specific media personalities that are famous only in the UK. Those parts still had good general information, but it's hard to stay interested when he's combating the high and mighty, who I just happen to have never heard of.

    The book is still over all quite interesting and gave me a fair deal of good information (his explanation of how stats are manipulated was a particular highlight for me), I just wish it was more generalized for an international audience.
  • (4/5)
    I adore books about modern myths and this is among the best. Though the title is fairly generic, the science in question here is largely related to health: medicine, disease, and diet, and the media's role in the spread of misinformation. I was surprised both by the debunking of myths I'd long thought to be true, as well as those myths and charlatans I'd never even heard of. As an American, reading about the British perspective was extra fascinating. Goldacre also has quite an amusing way with words, which helped dilute some of the anger a bit. Exasperation can be exhausting, but when tempered with humor it's much more enjoyable. Sure, there are some tales, like the AIDS denial in South Africa, that are simply horrifying, but by and large it's more eye-opening than depressing. Definitely recommended to anyone who's ever had any interest in those big "such-and-such causes/cures cancer" tales constantly blasted over the airwaves.
  • (5/5)
    Ben provides a nice analysis of what good science is an why it is needed to support claims made by health related companies. Dr. Goldacre is a physician in the UK and has a good understanding of clinical study design. He applies this knowledge to false claims made by homeopaths, vitamin companies, and those involved in the MMR scare. I enjoyed his common sense, honesty, and critical thinking. I strongly recommend this book.
  • (5/5)
    This is a great read for the lay person wondering why scientist get their pants in a twist about alt-med and various health scare-stories put out by the press. I would also strongly recommend this to people studying their A-levels as it would make a good basis for many essays in General Studies. It is a witty, informative read, covering some pretty heavy academic stuff without getting bogged down in a load of statistical nitty-gritty.
  • (3/5)
    The sort of book which makes you feel a little smarter after reading it, a bit more confident in your ability to see through the bunk that gets published in the popular press. It's also the sort of book which makes me feel that there is a real gap in the literature between scientific papers and the sort of things that regular people read every day. I will go and look at journal articles if I'm particularly interested in a topic, but they're inevitably filled with statistical jargon which is hard for a non-specialist to interpret. As Goldacre points out, science journalists aren't often given the big stories that they are best placed to explain.I found the tone of the book rather condescending and self-satisfied in places, but generally it's an interesting read and a good introduction to the important of rigorous experimentation and analysis.
  • (5/5)

    Goldacre explains how scientific trials work, their flaws and strengths, how they can be assessed and how they can be misrepresented; the perils of statistics; the immense shortcomings of media science coverage. At every stage he clearly outlines the reasons why each problem is bad for us (well, the UK, but I'm extrapolating to everyone).

    All this he does in language so straightforward that it's hard to think of anyone, no matter how "non-sciencey", having trouble following him. He does it with tongue sometimes in cheek, but also forcefully while remaining polite; no-one is demonised, though many are criticised. He goes out of his way to place the blame largely on the media machine, who amplify the relatively small transgressions of the individuals named in the book.

    Bad Science does have a problem with repetition: though the examples are different, I felt at times Goldacre had told me the same thing in slightly different ways four or five times. Perhaps this is no bad thing for his audience, but there were a few times I felt like saying "Yes, Ben, I understand, what's next?" He also makes repeated references to things that come later in the book, especially the media MMR debacle which is covered in the final chapter.

    Despite those little things, I recommend everyone who has ever been in an argument about about the safety of immunisation or the effectiveness of alternative medicines - on either side - read this book. You'll be richer for it.
  • (4/5)
    Ben Goldacre skewers bad science generally, but especially medically related bad science - homeopathy, eccentric nutritionalism, the autism-MMR vaccination hoax etc etc. But perhaps his greatest target is the lazy popular media that glories in the beat-up and distortion of science in the interest of boosting circulation/audience. He has an energetic writing style which is engaging and relaxed, while still successful in getting across complex concepts. At times I found his sentence structure a little convoluted - like he was writing by dictaphone and failed to properly edit, but this is a minor quibble. The issues are sometimes relatively trivial - companies flogging vitamins rather than better diet, but others are supremely tragic - the tens of thousands who died, particularly in South Africa as mental pygmies and science-illiterates pushed the line that retro-viral drugs were poison, and what AIDS sufferers needed was a good dose of garlic! I admire Goldacre's energy in pursuing these nut-cases in spite of the vitriol and law suits - I hope he keeps it up, and maybe more will start to listen.Read Feb 2014.
  • (4/5)
    This book should be required reading for everyone. It teaches essential skills for wading through the barrage of poorly researched media pieces and fiendish marketing ploys that aim to make you make poor and costly decisions about your health. It should be an eye opener for anyone. It is a bit UK-centric, but the lessons are universal.
  • (3/5)
    "Just as the Big Bang theory is far more interesting than the creation story in Genesis, so the story that science can tell us about the natural world is far more interesting than any fable about magic pills concocted by an alternative therapist." Well, no. Stories are important. They tell us what people's preoccupations are, what people want and what they're scared of. Scientifically, Goldacre's right -- but science isn't the only thing to be concerned about. I'm sure he'd think this reaction typical of an arts student who has a belief system that, wishy-washy, may or may not involve a god, and who rather defends people's right to believe whatever damn fool thing they want to as long as they don't force it upon me. That's very much Goldacre's style -- flippant, funny, but at the core you get the sense that he'd like to hit you over the head with the book to batter the concepts into you. Science Is The Only Thing. If You Can't Test It, It Isn't Real.

    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.
  • (4/5)
    Very good, very readable, very worthwhile. Will need to remember various choice snippets - I already knew the one about standard homeopathic dilutions being to the level that if you had a sphere of water 8 light seconds in diameter then there would be just one molecule of the active ingredient in it, but there are plenty of others in there. Lots of lovely outrage and information, too, which is cool.

    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.
  • (5/5)
    In Bad Science, Ben Goldacre shares his one man crusade to debunk the misapplication of science by those who claim scientific knowledge and the media who all too frequently take the wearing of a white lab coat as the assurance that whatever crazy idea is proposed, immutable scientific fact has underwritten it.Beginning with softer targets and working to a crescendo, chapter by chapter Goldacre makes a compelling argument that widespread misapplication of scientific thinking, is rife throughout medicine. He debunks numerous health scares and fashionable treatments and aims to help readers better understand where science has been misapplied, or should never have been applied at all.He exposes the systematic misapplication of pseudo scientific mumbo-jumbo, and the widespread inability of the media or the public at large to see through the myths created by those selling their cures and potions, from the herbalist to the multi-national pharmaceutical corporation.The early chapters use simple everyday examples, and having established the mechanism by which illusions are perpetrated and maintained, the later chapters reveal these same abuses applied on far grander scales.For example the detox footbath, in which feet are emerged in an inonising unit which magically changes the ‘energy field of water’, is revealed not to turn the water brown with toxins released from the feet, but simply by the formation of rust. This would be revealed by the simplest imaginable test. Switch on the machine without placing your feet in it, and the water turns just as brown.Goldacre goes on to reveal a suite of approaches, from cherry picking data, to sifting through trial results before deciding what the trial was meant to prove, to the exploitation of the placebo effect.The book builds towards more widespread and large scale abuses, including an alarming dissection of the hysteria surrounding the MRSA vaccination program which is a sobering read.As with ‘Reckoning with Risk’, the focus of the book is on medical science. This is not because it is an area any more susceptible to scientific abuse, but rather because its potential personal impact on each of us, draws our attention more readily. Barely a day goes by without a headline of a wonder cure or an identified cause for disease hitting the front pages. Goldacre has not far to look for a second volume of this work.There is an irony in this book. As his title suggests, Goldacre is a firm believer in good science. The charlatans he exposes are revealed for their misapplication of science and this obscures the fact that there are other ways of seeing the world than through scientific eyes. There is a great danger that in exposing bad science, we sweep aside everything that fails the ‘good science’ test.
  • (4/5)
    A companion volume to Bad Pharma, or vice-versa. Fun, but not enough science in it.
  • (3/5)
    Highly recommend the chapters about Statistics and about HIV/AIDS treatment in South Africa -- would rate those chapters a 5. The rest of the book was in need of better editing and less pomposity.
  • (4/5)
    An extension of his blog, this is a collection of basically rants about how science and statistics are abused by a variety of people. It also looks at faulty science behind some nutritionists and some of their dodgy "credentials". His emphasis is on making people question "facts" and double check the evidence.However, people don't have the time for a lot of this, and when you're offered a glimmer of hope people tend to take it. The placebo effect is explored here and he does admit that it works and works well if people load it with belief, so maybe examining everything doesn't always work as well as it might.It's a book worth reading, if only to read why he is so virulently opposed to some people's "science", I must admit to having read some of the books involved and having some reservations but it wasn't until I actually read this that I truly realised what was bothering me about them. This is part of the problem, I do have a background in Science but I really didn't have enough energy or time to really exhaustively research some of the "facts" given to me by some of these writers. The fact that there are people like Ben Goldacre out there help me sort the truth from the fiction.The only unfortunate thing is that, in general, those who should read this won't and those who do already have sceptical minds.
  • (4/5)
    It's difficult to review this book. On one hand it makes some very important points about media coverage and popular perception of science. It also covers a valid point in the discussion of media coverage and marketing; it is necessary to be cautious and to question what is being said. The author also makes a huge effort to equip the reader with the tools to do this. On the other hand, I like many other readers of this book got a little tired with the fact that Goldacre sometimes seems a little smug to say the least. The relentless bashing of humanities graduates seems like a strange strategy as well (why alienate a clear target audience?). Overall the value of this book is that it highlights the fact that many people in modern society have come to idolize scientists and that this, together with a penchant for scandal has been exploited by the press with very detrimental consequences. Perhaps the book has not perfectly finessed the problem but it has clearly brought it to the table and does offer some very valid solutions. This book is worth reading and I'm sure even Goldacre would welcome criticism!
  • (5/5)
    Really good. Lots of fun, and quite informative. Now I can lecture my mom about the statistics of cannabis use!
  • (5/5)
    This book, by its own admission "a light and humourous book about science" [p.216], sits nicely on my shelf next to How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World and Counterknowledge. It earns a cheerful four stars reminding us "that you should look at the totality of evidence rather than cherry pick, that you cannot overextrapolate from preliminary lab data, that referencing should be accurate and should reflect the content of the paper you are citing" [p.171] whilst having a pop at the scientifically unfounded claims of purveyors of health food supplements and homeopaths and their total lack of medical credentials, and examining the natural wonders of the placebo effect.There is a decent rant at the vacuousness of the majority of science reporting in the mainstream media perpetrated by "humanities graduates with little understanding of science" [p.224] along the lines of 'guess what those wacky scientists have come up with now'. Indeed, in his final analysis, the author lays the lions share of the blame of public misunderstanding of science at the feet of the media "which has failed science so spectacularly, getting stuff wrong, and dumbing down" [p.338]. Partly this is because of the incompatibility of scientific discovery and the news agenda: "The media remain obsessed with 'new breakthroughs'. ... But if an experimental result is newsworthy, it can often be for the same reasons that mean it is probably wrong: it must be new, and unexpected, it must change what we previously thought; which is to say it must be a single lone piece of information which contradicts a large amount of pre-existing experimental evidence" [p.236]. Sometimes this misreporting has drastic consequences, as in the case of the MMR vaccination scare described as a "the media's MMR hoax" [p.290].But there are three chapters in particular where Bad Science earns its fifth star for me by opening my eyes and teaching me something new. 'Is Mainstream Medicine Evil?' deals with 'big pharma' and how they can manipulate trial data to get a positive outcome for their drug [p.209]. 'Bad Stats' shows how to present statistical data in a way to sound more dramatic or impressive by using probabilities and percentages instead of natural frequencies, and the error of finding a hypothesis in the results that you were not testing for beforehand. The misunderstanding of statistics by laymen has resulted in some tragic miscarriages of justice. And 'Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things' has some neat examples of cognitive illusions and why we have a natural bias towards positive evidence that reinforces our prior beliefs. All in all a good entertaining read that has changed the way I read and appraise the reporting of 'science' stories in the mainstream media.
  • (4/5)
    We're on the same side Mr. Goldacre.That being said, I was a little disappointed in the way the author presents the subject. For example, his knocking of homeopathy and charlatan "science" frequently devolves into ad hominem. This is wholly unnecessary; we have the upper hand because science is on our side. Additionally, the author's style of writing is abrasively arrogant, which, is distracting. Most importantly, though, this book does little to promote critical thinking skills. The author spoon-feeds us the secret to the "magic" of those ludicrous detox foot pads without properly explaining why it sounds fishy, and the consequences of taking similar products' claims on its word. The reader may be left skeptical of homeopathy and the like (a good start) but lack the ability to personally assess *why* its claims are bogus and the science behind it. Overall, however, the book was a interesting read. The reason I had to give 3.5 stars is the subject matter is *so* important that I have to hold this work to a very high standard. If you're interested in the *value* of skepticism and how to apply it generally, might I suggest "The Demon-Haunted World" (Sagan)? If you want to learn more about how statistics can be misleading... well, I'm currently reading "How To Lie With Statistics" (Huff) and a review is forthcoming.
  • (5/5)
    Polemic against bad polemic.
  • (5/5)
    A book that is definitely worth reading for all the insights it gives you into the incredible amount of rubbish that is described as 'science' in the media. Goldacre gives a wide variety of examples of stories and personalities from the last few years (the book was published in 2008) in regards to the 'health' industry etc etc but what is really important is that he provides you with the methodology to apply to anything you might read in today's newspapers, magazines, television - as Sherlock Holmes would say "you know my methods Watson, apply them"One slight niggle (and it is slight and rather petty of me) is the frequent references to 'Humanities' graduates and their lack of interest or understanding of science, especially in regards to their position in the media and the trouble this causes in the public understanding of science. While I must sadly agree that in regards to the media it is probably true ( I recently read an embarrassing review of a Horizon Special television programme where the reviewer said that she only became really interested when she misheard 'fairies' instead of 'theories'!), there are many of us from 'The Arts' who do have shelves full of popular science books - and who knows we have even occasionally read them....However, this is just a slight moan on what is otherwise a very good book with an important point to make that should be read by everyone.
  • (5/5)
    I love this kind of non-fiction, so I found this book to be incredibly interesting and thought-provoking. I really enjoy anything that challenges my ideas and teaches me useful things at the same time, which is certainly what this book did. An excellent book, and pretty much everyone in the first world needs to read it.
  • (4/5)
    Three and a half stars.I really wanted to like this book. I went through the first four chapters highly entertained and thinking this was going to be a four or even five star book, but Goldacre's tone started to grate on me in the second half of the book.Goldacre is a science writer with a background in both medicine and psychiatry. This book exposes ridiculous claims in the medical world and explains the importance of the scientific method and its nuances. "Well, I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that" is the theme throughout the book. He covers homeopathy, the placebo effect, nutritionists, the MRSA scare, and the MMR vaccine drama. He also really hammers the media for its biased and sensational coverage of health news, its lack of understanding of science, and how it perpetuates that lack of understanding in the general population. He talks about cognitive illusion, how drug companies can skew results of studies, and statistical tricks. All of this was highly enjoyable and insightful.Here's the thing. This book will appeal to people people who fancy themselves a bit smarter than everyone else who are interested in (but not immersed in the world of) science in general and health & medicine in particular. This book was clearly written for people who already agreed with Goldacre--it could not have been for those who disagree with him because those people would be too highly offended. And the trouble is that I agree with Goldacre. I think he's right and I think this book delivers an important message that should be widely distributed, and I still couldn't get past his tone.You can be right and explain how you're right without being an ass.
  • (3/5)
    I thought I'd like this book because I consider myself a scientific person, and I agree with most of the fundamental points the author makes. But I was disappointed, mainly because of the presentation and style rather than the factual content.The first half of the book is the worst: the author makes snide comments about professions he doesn't like. For example, he says "[nutritionists] lack ... intellectual horsepower". He also indulges in ad hominem attacks against specific individuals who he disagrees with. I think he has a good argument, and is probably right about most of what he says. But he should really let the argument speak for itself rather than bashing the professions and individuals who oppose it.I can't imagine this book doing much to convince people who believe in "bad science", and that's a shame because a lot of the points are valid.I found the second half better. This covers how the media distorts findings, heath scares like MRSA and MMR, and how big pharma manipulates results.