I’ve been reading Ben Goldacre’s columns in the Guardian for years, so a lot of the stories in the book were familiar, but it is still a delight to see them put together into this book. After seven years of reporting, his particular and unique role has become critic on the role of the media and how they report on practicising scientists, although that isn’t to say that the media pay any attention to what he says. They really should.
Some of the stories are truly astonishing. The MRSA superbug scare, so prevelant in 2004, is shown to have been driven by a unethical collaboration between the media and a compliant MRSA detection ‘laboratory’. Even worse, the so-called lab was a garden shed. The man that the media lauded as the UK’s leading expert on MRSA had a non-accredited PhD from the USA, but he was their go-to guy for positive MRSA swab test results.
And lets not forget Matthias Rath. After being the subject of a critical Bad Science column, Rath took The Guardian and Ben Goldacre to court for libel. Eventually Rath lost the case, and an entire chapter of this book, devoted to the topic, could finally be included in the later editions after being excluded from the first print. If ever there was a good argument for guaranteeing the rights of journalists to criticise providers of health care, this chapter is it.
There is the usual supporting cast of bonkers homeopaths, peddlers of machines that turn water brown when you put your feet in them, and that awful poo lady Gillian McKeith. But the real villains are their water carriers, the compliant media that don’t seem to have even half a clue when it comes to science. Alternative medicine practitioners are celebrated while scientists are treated like eccentrics unable to make up their minds. All this matters because the public places far too much trust in what they read, and no greater example can be provided than the drop in public vaccination rates after the media-driven MMR hoax. Getting it wrong can, and does, cost lives and harm health. We should all be smarter, and this book can help.
A final note, to Ben Goldacre and his editors. I read a story as a child, possibly in Reader’s Digest, about a reporter who had developed the habit of peppering his prose with colons and semicolons. Despite his editor’s exhortions to cut back, he just couldn’t. The solution? One day, the editor took a pair of scissors and cut the colon and semicolon keys right off his typewriter. Forced to live without them, he found that his prose greatly improved. It is a lesson that I recall every time I want to reach for a colon or semicolon: do I really need to use them; and would the prose be clearer if they were not there? I err toward not using them, for the purposes of clarity. With that in mind, and maybe this is entirely my own complaint, reading Bad Science was somewhat like bicycling in a North American suburb. You are getting up a good rate of speed when you encounter an inexplicable stop sign. Even if the road you are on is busy, and straight, and the only junction is to a lane with just a few houses on it, there’s a stop sign. You can see the destination ahead, but to get there will take three or four stops and restarts before the road – like the sentence – ever ends.
It’s a minor complaint, and Ben Goldacre’s unique prose style certainly hasn’t stopped me purchasing three copies of the book, two of which were to give away. I find that I think of Bad Science as a bit like the A-Team of critical thinking books: “If you have a friend knee deep in woo, and no one else can help, and if they read books, maybe you can buy them Bad Science.” It wouldn’t hurt.