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.
badscience.net – 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