Nikki's Reviews > Bad Science

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
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Sep 22, 12

bookshelves: non-fiction, science-fact, health
Read on September 22, 2012

"Just as the Big Bang theory is far more interesting than the creation story in Genesis, so the story that science can tell us about the natural world is far more interesting than any fable about magic pills concocted by an alternative therapist." Well, no. Stories are important. They tell us what people's preoccupations are, what people want and what they're scared of. Scientifically, Goldacre's right -- but science isn't the only thing to be concerned about. I'm sure he'd think this reaction typical of an arts student who has a belief system that, wishy-washy, may or may not involve a god, and who rather defends people's right to believe whatever damn fool thing they want to as long as they don't force it upon me. That's very much Goldacre's style -- flippant, funny, but at the core you get the sense that he'd like to hit you over the head with the book to batter the concepts into you. Science Is The Only Thing. If You Can't Test It, It Isn't Real.

For what he's talking about -- "brain gym", which I was subjected to, for example, or homeopathy -- he's totally right, but the way he talks just sets my teeth on edge. I'm quite sure we couldn't get on if we got onto questions with subjective answers. So yeah, his writing about science is good, and perfectly clear to a relative layman (I did a biology AS level, and my mother's a doctor, though), but something about his attitude just narks me.

I mean. "The people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they have denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought from the past two hundred years..."

That's a direct quote from Goldacre. And watch! I can do it too: "The people who [write books like Bad Science] are [science graduates] with no understanding of [the important things in life], who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they [do not understand the power of stories, and resent their limitation of thinking that Western thought is the pinnacle of human achievement]."

Oh, and SSRIs: to be honest, I do subscribe to the theory that if they work for me, I'd rather not question it. (And they do. I haven't reacted to them in the exact way I'd been told I would: I had no side-effects, for example, and they began to work fairly quickly. Within a couple of weeks, all the major symptoms of my depression were gone, and though I wept when my grandfather died while I was on antidepressants, my feelings were in proportion to the event, unlike when my dad's mother died and I took to my bed for a week. I have not experienced any increase in anxiety, or that much trumpeted criticism that SSRIs make people want to kill themselves.) So I'm probably too biased to accept a word that Goldacre says on the subject, even forgetting the fact that a close relative has done research into antidepressants and I typed up their results! Of course it would be galling to accept that SSRIs are rubbish and I've been duped. But still, even trying to keep my own bias in mind, that doesn't sit right with me.

I wonder -- has Goldacre written anything about his own biases? My humanities degree has at least taught me that no one acts without some kind of stimulation. If you're looking at post-colonialism in literature, it's probably because the theory speaks to you (in my case, because I'm Welsh and some postcolonial theory can be applied; for others it's the issue of kyriarchy, the way that all kinds of things intersect, so that racism sometimes looks and acts a bit like sexism or homophobia, and so the theory can be applied elsewhere). If you're a feminist, you can find sexism in every text you read (and I'm not saying it isn't there, or you don't experience it as there). More harmlessly, perhaps, I'm a lover of Gawain, and I can interpret any given text as sympathetic to Gawain based on the social mores of its time -- or it's a shitty book, of course.

So yeah, watching Ben Goldacre froth in this book made me sort of want to know why it's so important to him. That's a bit of an ad hominem attack on his work, I suppose, but I do wonder how careful Ben Goldacre is to make sure he doesn't just find the results he's looking for, as he accuses other people of doing, or if he assumes that because he's debunking it in other people, he's immune.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Mike (new)

Mike Nice review. And I thought this was very good: And watch! I can do it too: "The people who [write books like Bad Science] are...


Nikki Heh, thanks.


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

I expect a journalist writing about football to understand the rules of the game. I do not expect less from a journalist writing about science.

As for your last paragraph: that is easily verifiable by reading the research he references.


Nikki I have read a reasonable amount of scientific research, and no scientist is immune from the possibility of letting bias affect the way they set up their experiments and how they draw their conclusions. So I very much doubt a science journalist is either.

If you have never come across scientific reports that contradict one another, you haven't read many. Someone may come up with a wrong theory, even if it is supported by accurate evidence. So I would not take the stuff Goldacre refers to as the gospel, and I don't have time to delve into the sources and criticisms of every popular science book I read.


message 5: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 08, 2014 07:39PM) (new)

Nikki wrote: "I have read a reasonable amount of scientific research, and no scientist is immune from the possibility of letting bias affect the way they set up their experiments and how they draw their conclusi..."

There are no "wrong theories." A theory is a theory and you test its probability. Erroneous correlation implies causation, which I'm sure is what you meant to refer to, is handled through peer review. Not perfectly, but far better than by journalists who'll report any study that promises a good headline and yet are hard-pressed to define what an independent variable is.

Finally, if you aren't willing to put in the work to verify Goldacre's positions, stop wondering about how biased he is.


Nikki No.


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