Bad Science

Issue section: 

Ben Goldacre, Fourth Estate, £12.99

Under modern capitalism our lives are increasingly dependent on scientific and technological advances, from mobile phones and MP3 players to the latest drug or surgical treatment. Yet at the same time there is also much public fear and misunderstanding about science. In Bad Science Ben Goldacre, most widely known for his Guardian column of the same name, investigates the consequences of such fear and ignorance, specifically in relation to the biomedical sciences and the various alternative health movements that have sprung up in opposition to them.

The book looks at three main areas: the dubious claims of alternative medicine and nutrition "experts"; the distortions that exist in the profit-driven pharmaceutical industry; and the media's role in promoting the public misunderstanding of science. If that sounds worthy but dull, the book is far from it, sweetening its serious agenda with a lively style and a clear eye for the ridiculous.

Goldacre finds much to ridicule in the claims of nutrition experts such as Gillian McKeith, or the "poo lady" as he calls her because of her habit of examining people's faeces on her popular TV show.

Alternative health might seem like a fairly soft target compared to some evils in the world, yet Goldacre shows that it is a billion dollar industry with the power to cause serious harm.

One person not mentioned in this book is Matthias Rath, thought to have made millions selling vitamin supplements and who encouraged people with Aids in South Africa to give up their drug treatments in favour of his pill remedies. He was not mentioned because he was pursuing a libel case against Goldacre. Rath's action has failed, leaving him with huge legal costs. Of course for the victims of such misinformation there is no such recompense.

The bad science of the mainstream pharmaceutical industry is far more subtle. One serious problem that arises in the assessment of new drugs is that an astonishing 90 percent of such assessment is carried out by the drug companies themselves.

However rigorous the individual scientists who work in such companies might be, the profit motive at the heart of the industry creates a huge pressure to come up with positive research findings. Only after drugs have been on the market for some years may the truth about some of them begin to emerge, such as recent suggestions that both the effectiveness and safety of antidepressant drugs like Prozac have been greatly overestimated.

Goldacre ends his book with a discussion of how health scares like that over the MMR vaccine can arise, despite the scientific basis of the research findings that led to the scare being deeply flawed.

He suggests that the media share a large part of the blame because of their ignorance of the scientific method. Surprisingly, the majority of science correspondents have no training in science, while the bigger a news story, the more likely it is that it will be passed on to a non-specialist journalist with even less understanding of science.

One of the most important aspects about Goldacre's approach is the way he encourages readers to develop for themselves the intellectual tools to uncover whether a supposedly scientific statement is true or just rubbish. As such, this is not only a very stimulating book but also a potentially very empowering one.