Bad Science

This is part of our quick reads series; helping you stay informed without hogging your precious time.  This post covers the book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.

Goldacre opens his Bad Science book with the promise that by the end you’ll be able to win any science-y argument you choose (from MMR vaccines to cancer preventing super vegetables).  This is a big ask, too big perhaps? However given the level of understanding of the scientific method in the general population, he has a point.  When the standard is so low, a crash test in these topics will put you well ahead of the game (at home and at work).

Especially the game played by many celebrity “experts” or over passionate (and mildly drunk) dinner companions.  One of the so-called “experts” Goldacre takes a serious swipe at got her PhD off the internet.  To prove his point Goldacre got one for his dead cat.  I kid you not.

Bad Science covers some great science basics such as: what is a controlled experiment, the importance of blinding, randomization, the placebo effect, causation (does the rooster cause the sun to rise?), confounding variables, what is a meta-analysis and much more.  He builds these explanations into the text so it doesn’t read like a dry methods 101 text book.  Clearly even we can’t summarise this stuff in under five minutes (but it does provide an idea to do so for each topic – like it? Let me know) but we can offer these useful tips ….

Goldacre helps the lay person spot the tricks which snake oil sales people use to make their wares sound super science-y.  A classic one being extrapolation gone mad.  For example taking a something that happens to a certain cell in laboratory and extrapolating the **** out of it.  He sums the insanity of this logic nicely by reminding the reader that fairy liquid will kill cells in a test tube – but that doesn’t mean it might be the next cancer wonder drug.

Another classic trick of the pseudoscience quacks is cherry-picking.  There are thousands-upon-thousands of articles published each year.  Sadly the quality varies.  Hence if you want to tell a ‘science’ backed story that supports your mad ideas or your latest organisational change offering – no problem you can almost certainly build most any case about most anything.   That is, as long as you manage to avoid a rigorous review from anyone that knows much about anything science-y.  Which tragically appears to be almost no-one.

 

If you are going to enter into any debates on anything involving science and don’t have a degree or two in it, you should read this book.  I would go further and say all high school students (and their parents) should read this book and then talk about it – with much vigour and enthusiasm over their paleo, vegan, traditional or other family dinner.

Worst case – if you are stuck in a challenging conversation Goldace has a useful phrase that will close most any non evidence based argument:

Um … “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”. 

This is also, rather conveniently, the title of one of his other books.  Simply proving you don’t need to be a quack to sell your wares.

References, Links and all that Jazz

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. (2009)  Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York.

Art by Rosie (12)

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