Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre

The Guardian's fearless science columnist expands into book form.

Well I didn't get as much out of the book as I'd expected - I think I must have read his columns fairly assiduously, because there wasn't a lot in here that I wasn't familiar with through the newspaper. What was noticeable was that in book form he's not so severely constrained for space: I often feel that the newspaper columns have a truncated air - I reckon he must be made to fit into limited number of words, and I think that leads to abbreviated arguments and the sense that you've missed something. So it was better to be able to read what (presumably) he thinks, without it having been edited for space.

There are many themes here in common with Suckers and Trick or Treatment?, but there's a slightly different slant: Goldacre's mission is to educate the reader and arm him against the misleading and mendacious stories that appear in the media purporting to be based on science. By his own admission, this fight isn't one to fix the problem: to the purveyors of this stuff, he says "You win".

Goldacre suggests (and I'm not sure how tongue-in-cheek he's being here) that part of the problem with science stories that get published is that too many humanities graduates are involved in the media, and that these people don't understand, or mistrust, science. As a result, they cultivate the impression that scientists are boffins who issue pronouncements on health advice, or come up with a formula to describe the sexiest legs, using techniques that are too arcane to be understood by the man in the street. This then contributes to the sense that the scientific community is perhaps not to be entirely trusted, which is partly why such "mavericks" as Andrew Wakefield (of MMR fame) are lauded for making a brave stand.

The book does contain quite a bit of information on the scientific method etc. (shades of Trick or Treatment here), as well as stuff about statistics - what they might mean and how they are easily misinterpreted. He refers to Reckoning with Risk approvingly, and uses natural frequencies to illustrate his arguments.

Anyway, very readable, and useful reference material for the stuff which I vaguely remember having read in his columns but forgot the details.

This is another book though, that I fear will be read by people who are already sympathetic to its arguments. As he says when citing the paper "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments":

people who are incompetent suffer a dual burden: not only are they incompetent, but they may also be too incompetent to assay their own incompetence.

Completed : 29-Nov-2008

[nickoh] [2008 books] [books homepage]