Review of Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”

31 July 2010 015

Image by EadaoinFlynn via Flickr

“Bad Science” is one of the most important and impactful books I’ve read: In the weeks since I’ve finished it, it has changed my perception and reception of science media stories, advertising claims, and everyday conversations.

I first took an interest in the book because of autism, specifically, because of the MMR-autism “debate”. In particular, I wanted to better understand why and how the supposed link between MMR and autism had wormed its way into collective consciousness; why and how the media had picked it up and run with it, and why the story so appealed to the human mind in face of opposing evidence.

It did answer those questions, but in doing so it also educated me about topics that I think we all need to better understand and be aware of. Such as the placebo effect, and how science finds “truths”. In explaining and examining the scientific method, Goldacre could have easily lost his audience with technical jargon. He manages to keep the discussions interesting and relevant, though I did get a bit bored and overwhelmed when he got into the deeper details of statistics. (I have an irrational emotional reaction to the topic of statistics though, due to experiences with the subject at highschool and university, so I wouldn’t read too much into that.)

I didn’t agree with everything he had to say – with every detail of conclusions and suggestions (such as his views about such topics as inequality of income, and cot death). But that didn’t detract from the purpose and lessons of the book; essentially enabling people to be meaningfully critical of scientific claims. I say “meaningfully critical” because there is a difference between blatant scepticism, and being able to pinpoint why one should be sceptical.

The MMR chapter was right towards the end of the book, as it was an excellent example of all the things he tries to inform and warn you about in the first chunk of the book. (It’s important to read the whole book, and in order – not just skipping to the parts you are most interested in. It’s not a huge book, so that’s not too much to do.) Not only did I find that key chapter interesting, and informative, I also found it quite emotional. I got near tears at one stage as I read it, because he so well understands what it’s like to live with these children and live through these controversies. Again, I didn’t “agree” with every detail of what he had to say in the chapter about MMR and autism, but the small points that annoyed me were gnats in a forest: They didn’t detract from the brilliance of the whole.

If I could “make” people read any book, it would be this. Not just people interested in science, or autism, or the media. It will help you to not just better understand the claims of others, but also your own reactions to those claims.

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5 Responses to Review of Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”

  1. KWombles says:

    It’s a good book. I’m working on James Randi’s Flim Flam now; I’d also recommend that. And Michael Shermer’s books are absolute musts. 🙂

  2. Bill T says:

    Thank you – a good review. Are you aware that he has a regular blog at http://www.badscience.net/ where he posts (and catalogues) his thoughts? Well worth a visit, I think.

  3. sharon says:

    Been a fan of Goldacre for a while now.

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