Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Book Review: Bad Science

Going from one book looking at the importance of science to this, the contrast of styles is startling. While Sagan tried his best to empathise and emotionally guide the reader towards science, Ben Goldacre's effort was an unrelenting attack on the way science is misrepresented and misused by the mainstream media. The book is Media Scepticism 101, and as such is a valuable read for anyone who wants to learn how to interpret the heavily filtered information we receive through media.

It's in it's privilege of the source of information that makes it so important for the media to be as accurate and as informative as possible. The problem for any media outlet is the ability to sell it's story, even the non-profit enterprises are competing for attention. Goldacre lays the blame for the miscommunication and controversy in the media at the hands of the journalists and editors themselves - humanities students who not only don't understand science but have a disdain for the endeavour. While this may be true, it's merely incidental to the real problem at hand - getting the layman to understand about how to investigate any claim of knowledge regarding science.

Being a British book, there is a strong focus on a couple of British media personalities. As it gets into personal details about these people, the stories serve as little more than parables to the non-British reader. It matters not what qualifications a nutritionist may or may not have, but it does matter in the way they present the message - and the media uses these people as an authority where there is no foundation for which to do so.

Where the book's strength lies is in its highlighting of the processes involved. The explanation of the placebo effect was sublime, exposing homoeopathy was thorough, and the way Goldacre explained the trappings and limitations of medical studies was highly impressive. The great thing was that even in all this, it gave the reader experiments to conduct on their own - from squirting water on detox pads to making moisturiser. By doing this, it wasn't simply a regurgitation of processes but a way to empower the reader to become more active in the process. After all, what's more important than one's own health?

The dismantling of the New Age claims about conspiracy theories and systematic subversive behaviour by health professionals was most impressive. Every conceivable argument was dismantled, and was even shown to be for the most part hypocritical (like a nutritionist claiming that big pharmacy is just in it for the money while using his platform to sell vitamin supplements.) The sympathy Ben Goldacre displayed for the layman couldn't be more apparent. At all times he focused on evidence-based medicines and means to achieve the best possible health outcomes for the public, and was very sympathetic to the concerns that generally are responsible for the negativity towards western medicine.

The book is blunt but entertaining, informative and yet a delightful read. The real beneficiaries from reading such a book would be the journalists and editors who make the news, but in absence of that trying to educate the public on the matters is the next best thing. In this, the more people who pick up a copy of this book and read it, the better off society will be. In a time when intellectual dishonesty is pushed by a sensationalist platform and an ignorant yet credulous public, having voices like Ben Goldacre speaking out is more important than ever before. When selective bias is being exacerbated by user-driven demand (the Internet) having the tools to combat misinformation can only be a good thing.

Next book: Christopher Hitchens - God Is Not Great

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