Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is a superbly written popular science book which aims, through examples, to teach you all about the scientific method. So whilst it goes through the typical examples of bad science: homeopathy, nutrition experts like Gillian Mckeith (“Or, to give her full medical title: Gilliam McKeith”), the MMR scare story and the problems with science reporting in newspapers it isn’t just doing so in an illustrative manner. It uses these platforms as spring boards to discuss the wider method in which you can recognise these issues, and any other future stories like them, as the rubbish they are.
I’m a statistician by trade so plenty of the subjects were old familiar stomping ground from my masters such as the importance of randomisation. However, I think that even if I hadn’t known why they were so useful I would have done after reading this book. It’s not all negatives though; Dr Ben Goldacre is keen to get across that by ignoring the true reasons for things we’re missing out. The chapter on the placebo effect was eye opening stuff, even for someone who by all rights should have known this stuff already.
Of most interest to me was Ben’s opinion on newspapers and why they are so terrible at reporting science. It was in some aspects immensely depressing, like Flat Earth News it was a complete demolition of the area yet there doesn’t seem to be any way with which we can reverse this trend. The book was written in 2008 and it was interesting to see how plenty of the characters and trends mentioned have reappeared since then. Whilst studying for my masters I was immensely amused by Dr Mark Gasson being “infected” with a computer virus and it was nice to see his partner in crime, Dr Kevin Warwick, getting up to implant in arm antics at Reading University when the book was written.
It was also immensely satisfying seeing someone from the science world discussing the merits of blogs. Not just because I write a blog of course! Plenty in the dead tree press, even among those I admire like Ian Hislop, see blogging as inaccurate rumour mongering. The reality is that most blogs I read back up their sources and data more, are better attributed to writer, have greater transparency when they’ve made errors and are just generally more accurate. The recent contraceptive implant scare is one such example, I didn’t note any other newspaper put the scare story in context except in the blogosphere. The context being not very scary at all of course.
I was hugely impressed by this book, and it’s a bit of a steal on amazon at the moment. If you’re still unsure after my review then just read the blog or the “missing” sample chapter. You won’t regret it.