Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre

Front cover of Bad Science by Ben Goldacre on a white textured backgroundBen Goldacre’s Bad Science is the perfect book if you’re looking for something written in a sarcastic and blunt voice, while still teaching you about how mainstream media distorts scientific facts. While this book may be most useful for those not as deeply entrenched in the science world, as a scientist I still learned a lot about the history behind media presentation of science and evidence-based medicine. From the opening, Goldacre sets up the structure of his book; he clearly outlines the anecdotes he will mention and how they all build upon each other to explain the cultural and psychological influences that drive the pervasive misrepresentation of good science and the peddling of pseudoscience. He also sets the foundation for how he plans to teach readers how to conduct basic scientific reasoning/thinking on their own so they can pass judgment confidently on pseudoscience in the media. What seems like a monumental task has been neatly broken down into manageable/approachable sections.

Pseudoscience may seem relatively harmless at first glance, especially when you consider things like detox foot baths or ear candles; both of which can be easily disproved with the simplest of tests. But when we follow Goldacre as he systematically details some of the more outlandish, yet popular topics — alternative therapies, homeopathy, or anti-vaccination hysteria — it becomes more apparent how damaging some of these beliefs can be to community, if not global, welfare. As he details the history surrounding these topics and how the media perpetuates support of them despite lack of proper evidence, we begin to see behind the curtain of scientific sounding terms and “evidence” to the underlying fake credentials and made-up data/studies. The homeopathic approach that many tout is nothing more than water mixed with more water; the belief that “water has memory” and retains features of a miniscule amount of chemical once mixed-in 100 dilution steps prior is completely unfounded. Furthermore, alternative therapists will maintain that their treatments and ideas have not been sufficiently researched. A completely false statement that can be unraveled with careful internet searches. Through all of this he doesn’t discount the psychology and power that is behind the simple ritual of consulting with someone to get a diagnosis and/or treatment plan. In fact, he spends an entire chapter on the placebo effect and all the factors that play into how well we think a treatment will work. But still at the heart of the problem is the complete disregard for evidence-based medicine and sensationalism of ‘data’ from flawed studies, or worse yet, made-up studies.

In light of the insidious nature of all this false data, it seems daunting to try to weed through it all to find the truth and make informed decisions. Here Goldacre takes the time to teach all the ways that anyone can build the skills to go through the scientific process to determine whether something really does hold up to scrutiny. Also, throughout the book he highlights areas where our own inherent biases and ingrained flaws in intuition/logic come into play when we are presented with science stories in the media. Actions as simple as questioning the raw data behind percentages can reveal a lot behind a statement the media has latched onto. A journalist saying there was a 25% increase in risk could really just mean that one extra person in 1,000 will experience that event, on top of the baseline number of people already experiencing it. The media and these pseudoscientific fields want non-science people to believe that basic science understanding is complicated or proprietary, when in reality most people with a little extra thought can reason for themselves. Scientific statements are not born of a singular expert working in isolation, rather it’s a continuous process of questioning and studying by countless individuals to come to rational conclusions. We lose the ability to see the context of that when all we are provided with is an overly generalized statement in the news; we can no longer understand how or why these results/conclusions came to be.

In the end, this book is a great resource for those who want to be more confident in their assessment of what they’re being told. It opens up a discussion on not only the straight facts about the bastardization of science/science reporting, but also the cultural and societal influences that then make people even more prone to believing the ever-present pseudoscience. Too often we relinquish our agency to questionable sources, rather than trust our own common sense when it comes to our health. In the larger context, Bad Science makes it more apparent that scientists need to try to communicate their results in a more effective manner when it comes to general audiences. The media will always print nonsense; especially considering the majority of headlining science stories aren’t written by specialized science journalists who are trained to critically assess scientific facts. But if we (scientists) add our voice to the mix, we can provide information that isn’t “robbed of any scientific meat” as Goldacre says.