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Bad Science

by Ben Goldacre

listed in complementary medicine

[Image: Bad Science]

"Never believe what you read in the papers" is a well worn adage hardly in need of restatement.  Almost as commonplace are revelations about serious mistakes in drug development, leading to adverse reactions among  patients.  There are a half dozen books chronicling these already well rehearsed problems of modern medicine.  Bad Science is hardly a groundbreaking book.

Ben Goldacre is a junior doctor in the NHS who since 2003 has doubled as a weekly contributor to the Guardian with his column and related website called Bad Science, largely culled from these weekly articles, which are all available free on the Guardian's website. Dr Goldacre's declared  twin objectives are to expose just how awful is the standard of British journalism when reporting science, mainly health related science,  and also aiming to educate the reader in spotting when articles conceal or misreport these deficiencies. In attempting this goal, he sets himself up as the high priest of evidence-based medicine, demands, inter alia,  avoidance of cherry picking to support scientific argument, points to the evils of selection bias, funding bias, and the more subtle biases  towards non reporting , both by the media and by scientific journals, of negative studies

The resulting  338 page tome in fifteen chapters paints British health journalists as deliberately  misrepresenting and over-dramatising science news, and uncritically accepting PR ("Churnalism") from research  scientists in the pay of commercial interests. Little surprise then that there are no favourable reviews from newspaper media critics on its covers, only from those given accolades within them.

Much of the book constitutes a disproportionately ferocious attack on  the burgeoning $50 billion global alternative and complementary medicine industry and its leading figures, whereas the  much larger $150 billion pharmaceuticals industry  is let off very lightly.  And although nearly every national UK newspaper (and some radio and TV too) comes in for serious criticism, there is a noticeable absence of criticism of the Guardian, the newspaper he happens to work for. The book also omits several important current topics where journalists often make elementary mistakes and draw wrong conclusions from published scientific studies, such magnet therapy, the health effects of WiFI, and cellphone health hazards.

Goldacre does not make it easy to detect these omissions and dissonant colourants: - there is no index at the back of the book, so one cannot easily compare references to individual news media  and thereby see that the Guardian almost completely escapes attention, or that only two or three large pharmaceutical fims are actually named, compared with over a dozen individual well-known personalities from the CAM movement, two of whom are accorded an entire ad hominem destructive chapter each by way of argument. This approach throws the baby out with the bathwater, since despite their sometimes lack of erudition or academic credentials such folk have nevertheless pointed proper attention to the indequacies of modern nutrition.

Homeopathy perhaps above all others is singled out for special denigratory treatment. Unfortunately here Goldacre is hoist with his own critical petard, because he chose to omit the most important set of experiments relating to homeopathy, the high dilution experiments of the late Jacques Benveniste famously featured by the journal Nature under its even more notorious editorship by John Maddox. This experiment showed that basophils still degranulate even when the challenging molecule is diluted far beyond the Avogadro number. It was repeated in several different laboratories, but Nature still refused for some years to publish the results until their investigative team had witnessed the procedures for themselves. (The team included James Randi the magician, Maddox, and a shadowy figure apparently connected with the CIA). For the first few days the experiments went as claimed, until they were wrecked by a number of tricks such as bringing video cameras so close to the test tubes that their electromagnetic fields altered the water structure. As a result, the editor joyously claimed the results were a delution. He might have paused to consider that heparin the blood anticoagulant is also effective with no lower limit  to its dilution.

Goldacre employs moreover, an unusual method of chapter notes (though some chapters have none at all), so that if one tries to work back from these, one needs to scour the page to find what the note of interest refers to. This also plays an obfuscatory role. Finally, one might expect to find in a book about science some easy means of  checking any references in the text to scientific literature, (superscript numbers, or better still the Harvard system, would have done the job), but the 110 studies he quotes are buried in the chapter notes. All these strategems make the book difficult to follow in detail.

Nothing is perfect. Most people are vaguely aware, thanks to a dying breed of investigative journalists, that Government and medical science have had  their defects: thalidomide, Prozac, Valium, BSE/CJD, organophosphates, are just a few  testimonies to failure. But what unbalances this book is its selective bias towards attacking complementary medicine, with homeopathy, nutritional preventive medicine, vitamin supplements, singled out, and castigated for having  commercial objectives (an inevitable and univeral corollary of Western capitalism), while arguably more important issues such as the scandals within the "cancer industry," where a single treatment pill can cost a hundred pounds, are ignored.  By and large, establishment scientists such as Sir Richard Doll and his friend Peto, or the Cochrane Collection of analyses (see the Early Day Motion 1442 of April 2008 condemning Cochrane), are given accolades, despite revelations about their  less sanitary activities, but most of the Nutritionists featured are given a bad press as uneducated pill peddlers. Thus the treatment Goldacre doles out is by no means even-handed, and sullies his otherwise laudable aim of getting health journalists to become more critical in their scribblings.

There is some science in this book, not much, and not rigorous:  the author excuses himself by proferring it simply as an entertaining work rather than a serious text. But this means that Bad Science should not be taken as being of scientific interest , merely as polemic  literature. Those seeking more adult and reasoned (and well referenced) tracts should read the excellent Secret History of the War on Cancer by Dr Devra Davis,  Horace Freeland Judson's The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science, or the growing list of books of this genre available via Amazon, arguably better value for money. Alternatively readers can simply browse the Guardian articles themselves for free.
About the Reviewer
Roger Coghill MA (Cantab) C Biol MI Biol MA Environ Mgt is a Cambridge Biologist, Member of the Institute of Biology, and part of the SAGE Committee appointed by the Department of Health to advise on precautions, if any, needed to mitigate electromagnetic fields and radiation effects on health. He has directed his own independent research laboratory in South Wales for 25 years and may be contacted via

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Roger Coghill
Fourth Estate Ltd.

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