Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

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Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Keith Dudhnath
Reviewed by Keith Dudhnath
Summary: A hilarious, useful and essential look at the appalling misuses of science throughout society. Part exposé and part educational tool, Bad Science is as highly recommended as they come for anyone with even half a brain.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Harper Perennial
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0007284870

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Bad science is everywhere. People buy more expensive brand name aspirin than an equal dose in a different packet. Cosmetic adverts are peppered with pseudoscientific breakthroughs and ostensibly positive statistics. Newspapers and TV news (and sadly not just the tabloids) are riddled with scare stories of cannabis being 25 times stronger, or miracle cures that will make everyone and everything fit and healthy immediately. Ben Goldacre (NHS doctor and Guardian columnist) cuts through the bullshit and gives people the tools to spot such nonsense for themselves.

Part exposé (with a delightful smattering of well-aimed and hilarious jibes) and part educational tool, Bad Science is an essential read for anyone who has ever considered that there might possibly, maybe, perhaps, be some benefit to critical thinking. I've long loved Goldacre's Bad Science Guardian column; the book is an expansion of his articles. It brings together all the old favourites (Gillian McKeith, Patrick Holford, the Durham fish oil 'trials', the media's MMR hoax) into a cohesive whole, rather than a simple rehashing.

The archetypes of bad science are treated with remarkable restraint. One can be in no doubt what Goldacre thinks of McKeith et al - even though, for once, he didn't call her 'the awful poo lady'. (If that's not restraint, I don't know what is). However, his concern is less with the people themselves, but with the systems and a society where such people are held up as experts, despite coming out with pseudoscientific proclamations that are questionable at best. He's critical of their data (or lack of it), their methods, their obfuscation, but is much politer than I would be about the people themselves. The examples are used to expand the reader's understanding of scientific principles, statistics, human psychology, the placebo effect, and the unpleasant motivations of pharmaceutical companies or journalists.

Pharmaceutical companies? Oh yes. This isn't a doctor in the pay of big pharma bashing alternative medicine so he can sleep soundly on his big bed of gold. Goldacre's target is bad science, wherever it comes from. You will learn about suppression (both ignorant and malicious) of clinical trials that, naturally, predictably and tragically lead to unnecessary death. He's critical of GM food, not because it's a spooky thing that might do strange things to our bodies, but because aspects of it mean large multinational companies are looking to sell farmers new seeds each and every year.

Oh, and it's all very funny too. I probably should have mentioned that. Goldacre has a delightful turn of phrase and sense of comic timing. He's a natural teacher - he knows when to lighten the mood with a joke, he knows when a witty aside will make a point memorable, and he knows when the audience is ready to learn something new. I laughed out loud on many occasions, I learnt plenty, I enjoyed it, and it was useful.

I may not have much (well, any) sway with the Royal Institution, but I would love to see Ben Goldacre doing a series of Christmas Lectures on placebos. For all the vital debunking throughout the rest of the book, he's at his best when he's explaining about such a fascinating and mind-blowing subject. In every word, it oozes out just how cool he finds the placebo effect to be. Passion is good.

As a nutritionist (in the Spartacus sense) I wholeheartedly recommend you buy Bad Science, read it, and lend it to everyone you know with even half a brain. Even one little dose of it will change your life for the better.

If you loved Bad Science, The Tiger That Isn't by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot and How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland do the same for maths and reading as Bad Science does for science. Although it's not been reviewed by Bookbag, The Road to Wellville by T Coraghessan Boyle is a highly-recommended and hilarious look at early 20th-century quackery. You might also be interested in 2012: Science or Superstition by Alexandra Bruce.

Addendum: An additional chapter has been added to the paperback version. It can be read in full at

Booklists.jpg Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is in the Top Ten Non-Fiction Books To Make You Think.

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Booklists.jpg Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is in the Top Ten Books For The Defenders Of Reason.

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