Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

The subtitle here is "Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks," which explains the proceedings a bit better than the expansive title does. Author Goldacre was a doctor before he was a writer -- or is a writer primarily about things that bother him as a doctor -- and so this book isn't about bad science in general, but a very particular kind of bad science. If it were completely accurate, it would have been named Bad Medicine, but, sadly, Bon Jovi got there first. Goldacre is also British, so the things that annoy and incense him are the idiocies of the great British public -- other countries have their own, distinctive idiocies -- particularly homeopathy and the great vaccination-causes-autism scare.

To go along with his quite British targets -- Goldacre is also grumpy about multinational pharmaceutical companies, though he tries to maintain a consistent clear-eyed-and-resigned tone throughout, and tends to downplay their sins, since they're not nearly as idiotic as the other nutters he writes about -- Bad Science has a deeply British tone: aggrieved, but assuming that the world will always aggravate him; casually cutting and full of wit, though not "witty;" off-handedly authoritative; and a sense that things will always be pretty bad, but that we'll muddle through nevertheless. So Bad Science begins with the clearly demented tenets of homeopathy, and works its way up the ladder of medical misconceptions through biased tests and shelved results -- again, he's complaining more about "Complementary and Alternative Medicine," that latest euphemism for snake oil, but he also explains along the way how more conventionally scientific data is tweaked and twisted and tarted out to show whatever unscrupulous researchers want it to show.

There is no physics in Bad Science, and the chemistry and biology here are exclusively concerned with the health of the human body. There are vast, uncharted fields of horrible science that Goldacre doesn't come anywhere near explicating. But, what it does -- carefully pointing out the major ways that the UK is misled, and misleads itself, about its health and the care thereof -- it does well.

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