Ben Goldacre – Four Way Interview

Ben Goldacre is an award winning writer, broadcaster, and medical doctor who has written the weekly Bad Science column in the Guardian since 2003. His Bad Science blog is an unparalleled source of information on dubious science, particularly in complementary medicine. His book, with the inspired title Bad Science, came out in November 2008.

Why Science?

More because it’s interesting than because it’s right.

Why this book?

Because I wanted to have everything in one place, the whole story of how we know if something does us good or harm, and the many ways that we can be misled by other people or, more interestingly, ourselves.

What’s next?

Golly, I don’t know. I might do a book for doctors and medical students on how to spot dodgy evidence from big pharma, expanding on the book chapter, since I do some teaching on that, and I think it’s a way to make teaching critical appraisal skills a bit more interesting. Epidemiology was called “epidemiholiday” when i was at medical school.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

The album by Au Revoir Simone (The Bird of Music), badscienceblogs.net, a musical device designer called “the Harvestman”.

Bad Science – Ben Goldacre *****

Ben Goldacre, the author of this book, gave a keynote address at a science blogging conference I attended recently. He was funny, brash and acerbic in his attacks on poorly conducted and reported science (particularly medical science) just as he is on his excellent blog Bad Science. What remained to be seen was whether he could translate this rip-roaring success as scourge of the pseudo-scientists into the full length book form. With a few small quibbles the answer is a very loud ‘yes’. It’s excellent.

Goldacre takes on the likes of Brain Gym, homeopathy, exotic claims from the cosmetics industry, Gillian McKeith, Patrick Holford and more. It’s remarkable just how many are taken in by this pseudo-science, and Goldacre roundly and accurately criticizes the media for their wide-eyed ignorance. In his talk, he seemed to say that professional writers are rubbish and we should rely solely on real scientists’ communications. In practice this doesn’t work well as a sole approach, and in the book he is much more careful to point out that science journalists often know what they are doing, but are sometimes pushed aside by editors and generalist journalists and their opinions ignored where scientific truth is likely to get in the way of a good story.

This is a rollicking good read, blisteringly putting the likes of McKeith in their place and explaining why otherwise clever people are fooled by really very stupid things.

So to those quibbles. One is that the tone so relentlessly emphasizes ‘don’t believe them when they tell you something without detailed scientific backup’ that it means the reader gets a little irritated when Goldacre falls into the same trap himself, commenting, for instance, ‘there are forty-year-old O-level papers which are harder than the current A-level syllabus’ without offering any evidence to back up this assertion. I’m not saying it’s not true, but after he has pounded it into us, surely we shouldn’t take it from Goldacre himself without appropriate peer reviewed quality research to back the assertion up.

The other slight quibble is that Goldacre isn’t a professional writer, and though his enthusiasm and verve makes for a great speech or column, he really hasn’t quite got the hang of keeping your interest through a full book and just occasionally it gets a trifle dull. Lots of it is brilliant, but not everything is explained particularly well, and it could do with a professional polish – but the content is so superb that this really doesn’t matter.

This is definitely one of the best popular science books of the year. (And as this is a subjective review I can say that, even though I have no double blind tested, peer reviewed trials of the hypothesis to back it up.)

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Review by Brian Clegg