Bad Science by Ben Goldacre – Review

Bad Science

Ben Goldacre  England

Fourth Estate (2008), 288 pages

The Gutter Bookshop, €11.20

Science & Health

In Bad Science, Dr. Ben Goldacre provides a useful layperson’s guide to investigating the claims made by the pharmaceutical and health industries.  Goldacre effectively debunks the detox industry and homeopathy whose effects, if any, are derived from the surprisingly powerful placebo effect.  Goldacre illustrates that media driven promotion of bad science has real world consequences.  Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s, now discredited, research linking the MMR vaccine to childhood autism led to a drop in the number of children being vaccinated, minor measles epidemics, and children’s deaths (3 in Ireland alone).

For a skeptic like myself perhaps the most important point of Goldacre’s book is to question “research” that is promoted by the media.  Research is only valid if it’s published in a respected peer-reviewed journal.  Publishing a press release that garners publicity but not releasing the trial data should immediately ring alarm bells.  Also it is too easy to extrapolate laboratory research into real world results.  Lab research in a petri dish or a lab rat may provide useful information for further research but just because a lab rat turns green if you feed it peas (it won’t I made that research up) doesn’t mean a human will turn green too.

Goldacre is also critical of big pharmaceutical companies.  Big pharma’s main aim is to make money (they spend more on advertising and PR than research) so that research into killer diseases in the developing world (such as  Chagas disease) may be ignored in favour of ailments that will make more money in the Western world.  Pharmaceutical companies can also manipulate their trials to ensure the best result for their products and, if they can’t manipulate the data, they will simply hide any negative results.  Of course the pharmaceutical industry isn’t all bad; our increased life expectancy is partly due to the development of medications such as antibiotics and scientific studies into the transmission of diseases.  Our life expectancy hasn’t increased due to acupuncture or wearing magnets on our wrists.

Goldacre extols the need for intelligent evidence based science journalism as a way to prevent the dissemination of bad science.  The costs to society of failing to promote evidence based medicine (and that includes publishing the results of all trials not just the positive ones) are too great to risk another MMR scare or the belief that vitamins can cure Aids or cancer.


Related Links – Author’s website

Matthias Rath – Chapter from Bad Science on doctor who promoted the use of vitamins to combat Aids

The Cochrane Collabration – Independent, not-for-profit, health information group



Taliban by Ahmed Rashid – Review



Ahmed Rashid احمد رشید Flag_of_Pakistan

I.B. Tauris, 2000 (2010 Revised Edition) (344 pages)


Afghan History Afghanistan

Taliban: The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond is a brilliant analysis of the rise of the Taliban and their effect on regional and global politics.  I’ve often read that the Taliban received support from Pakistan’s intelligence agency (the ISI) but with no explanation as to why the ISI would support a radical Islamic government on Pakistan’s doorstep.  Rashid explains that the ISI were keen to establish a transport route through Afghanistan to the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.  It was easiest for the the ISI to support a unified Sunni Pashtun Taliban government than to deal with a variety of multi-ethnic warlords.  The Pakistani government also hoped that Islamic extremism in Pakistan would be diluted if they were seen to be supportive of an Islamic theocracy in Afghanistan.  Part of the initial success of the Taliban lay in the perception that they would be less corrupt and brutal then the myriad warlords who fought each other since the end of the Soviet occupation.  The Taliban seemed to offer the possibility of a restoration of law and order and basic security for Afghan citizens.  Initially the Western powers were not completely opposed to the Taliban as they seemed to promise and end to the cultivation of opium and a Sunni Taliban government would reduce the risk of Iran having a controlling interest in Afghanistan.

Once in power, any idea that the Taliban might liberalise their policies to suit the multi-ethnic cultures and traditions of Afghanistan soon vanished.  The Western media often portray Al-Qaeda style terrorism as a natural continuation of Islamic beliefs.  In fact the puritanical beliefs of the Saudi Wahhabis, Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, are a break from the values that enabled Islam to spread across the world.  Rashid explains that the Pashtun sectarianism of the Taliban destroyed the millennia old balance between tribal customs and religious beliefs.  They seemed to want to create a tabula rasa upon which to write their true version of Islam.  And the only way to create a pure society is to eliminate all those who disagree with you.  In the logic of Taliban, Al-Qaeda, or ISIS, the only true Muslims are those who support them.   The Taliban massacred 8,000 Shia Hazaras in 1998 (following a massacre of 3,000 Taliban prisoners by an Uzbek warlord) but it was their persecution of women that garnered the most attention.  The Taliban effectively removed women from public view, stripped them of their jobs, and issued a string of rules regarding what women could (the burqa) and couldn’t (lipstick, high heels) wear. I believe that at the heart of much violence lies repressed sexuality.  When normal sexual desires are completely repressed, the objects of such desires (often women) become objects of hatred.  The internalised guilt and shame of sexual desire can only be quenched by physically controlling access to the perceived source of desire or through acts of ultra-macho violence (including suicide bombings).  All warlords used boy soldiers and the practice of sexually abusing boys (called Dancing Boys) continued under the Taliban.


The recent attack on Islamabad airport by the Pakistani Taliban (although separate to the Afghan Taliban they share the same ideology) has illustrated the dangers of Pakistan actively supporting the Taliban outside its borders and tolerating extremism within in an attempt to protect the state from attack.  Like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s attempts to diffuse extremism at home by supporting extremism in Afghanistan have been a dismal failure.  Pakistan looks increasingly like a failed state where the basic rights of its citizens come a distant second to the desire to protect the power and bank balance of the ruling elite.  Sectarian attacks on Shias, Ahmadis, and Christians have resulted in numerous deaths with too few convictions.

Similarly the ISIS gains in Iraq have been aided by Nouri al-Maliki’s pandering to Shia extremists by, at the very least, turning a blind eye to Shia death squads who sought to cleanse areas of their Sunni brethren as a kind of payback for years of abuse under Saddam Hussein.  This failure to grant basic rights to minority groups undermines the state as a whole.  Al-Maliki has been reduced to calling on citizens to take up arms against hardened ISIS fighters whilst the Iraqi army melts away.  Ironically al-Maliki is now dependent on minority Kurdish fighters and foreign airstrikes to try and stem the spread of ISIS.

Whilst the primary responsibility for the Taliban’s crimes lies with the Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors, other nations share a portion of the blame too.  Rashid terms the international battles over Afghanistan as “The New Great Game”.  The destruction of Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and the mujihadeen campaign has never been fully repaired.  Over a million Afghans were killed and the country was littered with landmines.  Afghanistan was yet another example of a nation which, once liberated, was forgotten about, allowing the seeds of future wars to germinate.  Rashid has added an additional chapter to the revised version of the book.  In it he highlights the continuing failure of the world to establish the conditions necessary for a democratic Afghan state.  The West seems to happy to proclaim Afghan elections a success because they take place at all even if they are clearly marred by fraud.  Again the the West has shown that it is extremely effective at invading a country (sometimes with just cause – the Taliban was an exceptionally brutal regime) but hopeless at rebuilding a state.  As the West continues to pull out of Afghanistan it will attempt to paper over the gaping holes it leaves behind with press releases and PR stunts.  Yet again the Afghan people deserve better.


Related Links

Human Rights Watch report on foreign intervention in Afghanistan