Monday, July 30, 2012

A good book--Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

If I could recommend one good book this summer, Bad Science by Ben Goldacre would be it. I know the book has been around for several years, but I am just finally getting around to reading it. I am thoroughly enjoying it, not only as a scientist interested in how the public understands science, but also as a member of that public. As I read the book, I try to put myself in the shoes of non-scientists, to determine if they can really understand what Ben Goldacre is saying. I believe they can—he is that good a writer—never dull or dry, rather smart and humorous, but deadly serious concerning what he writes about. I find myself thinking—yes, it’s good to be skeptical and questioning, it’s correct to want to see good statistics in newspaper articles, something to which he devotes an entire chapter (Bad Stats). It’s correct to want the media to be accountable for their reporting of medical and scientific issues. I know that it’s ok to be all these things, because as a scientist, I both write and review articles (peer review) for scientific journals. Part of learning to become a scientist involves learning to be critical, objective, unemotional, and tough when reviewing articles for your peers as well as when writing your own. You learn to welcome constructive criticism from co-authors and journal editors alike. You learn to swallow your pride and put aside your ego often, to edit your own article in ways that you never thought possible, and to suggest that other scientists do the same when it is your turn to be a reviewer.

I think Bad Science should be required reading for high school and college students, so important is its message. And it might get fledgling scientists to really take a look at what is demanded of them for the future in terms of the quality of the research they will perform, and why it is important for them to adhere to a few basic ground rules. Because Ben Goldacre has no patience for quacks or sloppy science, and he is not afraid to say so. Here are just a few of the chapter titles in Bad Science: The Placebo Effect; The Nonsense du Jour; How the Media Promote the Public Misunderstanding of Science; Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things; and The Media’s MMR Hoax. He is merciless when it comes to holding the media accountable for what they write about medicine and science, and he is right. They should be held accountable, from journalists all the way up to editors. But as I said, he is also humorous, in that especially British sort of way. His description of the media frenzy surrounding Tony and Cherie Blair’s failure to comment as to whether they had vaccinated their infant son Leo, and their foray into the world of homeopathy and New Age, is priceless. Ditto his description of how the scientific community dealt with the anti-vaccine campaign of a few years ago; here is an example from his chapter about the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella triple vaccine) hoax—“Emotive anecdotes from distressed parents were pitted against old duffers in corduroy, with no media training, talking about scientific data”. If nothing else, you get a good mental picture of stodgy old scientists who were totally clueless as to how they should counter the arguments against vaccinating children. Hence his campaign for the public understanding of science; it involves prodding scientists to explain their work clearly and concisely to the public as much as it does prodding the public to make a real effort to learn to understand how science is done. Ben Goldacre also writes a column for the British newspaper The Guardian, and otherwise a website that he updates regularly:, both of them well-worth checking out. 

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