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Beb Goldacre


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Goldacre is a NHS doctor who is also a broadcaster and journalist, best known for his 'Bad Science' column in The Guardian. Here we get quite lengthy and stimulatingly vigorous denunciations of various examples of bogus science. It's good fun if a bit repetitive at times.

Contrary to what you might expect, there isn't a great deal about CAM (complementary/altermative medicine). There is a chapter on homeopathy, which gets the basic facts right (not always the case when critics write about the subject) but the bulk of the book is concerned with other matters. The diet industry gets a well-deserved kicking in several chapters. Goldacre points out that most of the self-styled experts (with a mail-order PhD in one case) who pontificate about diet on television and in the press lack any real scientific credentials and misuse scientific jargon to impress their audience. But much of what they say is scientifically illiterate

But it isn't only fringe pseudoscience that he attacks: the pharmaceutical industry comes in for its fair share of debunking. Goldacre explains the steps by which drug companies discover, test, and promote a drug to doctors (in Britain, unlike the USA, they are not allowed to promote their wares to the general public directly). He lists the ways in which they manipulate the evidence. They don't actually falsify their results but they find ways of presenting them in a favourable light even when the research fails to prove what the drug company wants it to show. And there is selectivity in publishing the results: good trials, with a positive outcome, appear in the mainstream journals, while less favourable or poorly designed trials are consigned to obscure journals where they will probably be read by no one. (In fact, there is now evidence that many trials that yield negative evidence are never published at all.)

The main take-home message from this book is that we need much improved scientific literacy, and this is what Goldacre is trying to encourage. He makes a good job of presenting critical scientific thinking at a popular level, and that is certainly to be welcomed.

30 September 2009

%T Bad Science
%A Ben Goldacre
%I Fourth Estate
%C London
%D 2008, 2009
%G ISBN 978-0-00-728487-0
%P xiii + 370pp
%K science
%O paperback

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