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Book Review : Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Monday, 2 February 2009

Bad Science isn't a work of fiction and so arguably doesn't belong in a blog about the writing (and by extension the reading) of made up stuff, but it's a great book, so what the hell. It's essentially about the way medical science is reported in the press - or misreported, to be more accurate. So there's stuff on homeopathy (the placebo effect with pseudo-sciencey nonsense tacked on), nutritional science (scams to make you buy expensive and unnecessary vitamins etc.) and the MMR (highly effective, completely sensible triple vaccine, still reported as "controversial").

The book is amusing, fascinating and depressing. At the very least all journalists and editors should be made to read it before they are allowed to practice. And maybe pass some sort of test to prove they've understood it. The Telegraph and The Daily Mail, in particular, (for those of you not living in the UK, these are daily papers over here) should just stop printing their usual nonsense and dump out whole chapters from this book. Then their readers might actually be told something useful and, you know, accurate.

I'm of the view - and this may seem odd for a writer of fantasy and an occasional poet - that science is all we've got for understanding the universe. OK, there's the small corner of it that goes on in our heads (imagination, delusion, religion etc.) that isn't really bound by science (at least not yet) but as soon as you step outside the cranium and attempt to explain or understand something going on in the real world, then you need science. Anything else is just stuff you've made up. This seems so basic and obvious it's hardly worth writing. But I read in a paper today that only 25% of adults in the UK consider evolution to be "definitely true". Seriously. Sometimes you wish we'd just start evolving a little more quickly ...

The difference is, fiction doesn't pretend to be anything other than fiction. If I write a story where magic really works, I'm not claiming the universe is really like that. It's a story. Our minds like stories. They like the fantastical and imaginitive. So that's fine. But read Goldacre's book and you'll see there are plenty of people out there talking complete nonsense and, crucially, claiming their words are fact. And plenty of papers and TV channels complicit in the whole process.

One small quibble : Goldacre appears to blame humanities graduates working in the media as a large part of the problem. The inference is that they are too stupid or too poorly trained to understand science, being, you know, mere arts graduates. As an arts graduate myself, I obviously disagree. But, more to the point, Dr. Ben, where's your proof? Where's the well-conducted trial that shows this to be the case? This couldn't just be unscientific prejudice on your behalf could it?

But that's by the by. This is an essential book. Highly recommended.


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