March 30, 2011

BOOKS: Bad Science, Ben Goldacre (2008/US edition, 2010)

Since 2003, Goldacre has written the "Bad Science" column for The Guardian. Here, he expands on the frequent themes of that column in a spectacularly useful and informative book.

Goldacre's targets are, in the words of the book's subtitle, "quacks, hacks, and big pharma flacks." He explains, precisely and methodically, how drug companies and practitioners of alternative medicine are able to so easily befuddle and confuse the public, and how we can better recognize such trickery when it's happening.

The problem is, Goldacre argues, that we are not taught anything useful about the scientific method, so we have no idea how to interpret the results of studies. Most crucially, we fail to recognize when those results are being deliberately misrepresented, either by drug companies looking to make their products look better than they are, or by the media trying to stir up fear and controversy.

In straightforward terms -- nothing here is beyond the grasp of any high-school graduate -- Goldacre explains all the things that we need to know about medical research: What's a placebo? What's a double-blind study? How do I spot bias? He also takes the media to task, both for helping to perpetuate our ignorance and by playing into it for ratings.

And in a terrific final chapter, Goldacre goes after Andrew Wakefield and the other doctors who have spent the last decade perpetuating the myth of a relationship between childhood vaccinations and autism. Carefully and methodically, he explains how all of their research was at best flawed, and more likely outright fraudulent, and how and why the media were suckered into going along for the ride. (The vaccine/autism "link" was an even bigger scare in England than it's been here.)

I can't recommend this book highly enough. You'll never hear another "can eating pizza double your risk of spontaneous human combustion?" story again without immediately running through a mental checklist of all the things that are wrong with the reporting (and probably with the study in question). This should be required reading in American high schools.

No comments: