Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, And Big Pharma –Flacks–, by Ben Goldacre
This book will make you laugh and make you cry. It will make you angry and also (hopefully) make you a bit more humble and knowledgeable. Written by a medical doctor who happens to be a science writer for the British newspaper The Guardian, this book looks at ever increasing levels of bad science in our contemporary society. In many ways, the book itself has the organization of a series of role playing game quests, starting out with some basic quackery like Hopi ear candles and detox baths, then moving up a level to look at Brain Gym, a bogus attempt to capitalize on pseudoscientific exercise advice, and then another level up to look at makeup, homeopathy, and antioxidants, and another level up to look at nutritionists and their desire to obfuscate the causes of good health in support of fad diets, before looking at the dangers of pharmaceutical companies and the groupthink of alternative medicine relating to MMR and HIV. Along the way, the author takes some time to examine the placebo affect as well as the reasons why bad statistics are so common in newspaper reports on science.
It is hard to name anyone who looks good, aside from the author, at the end of this book. Presumably, as a scientifically inclined person who has a sarcastic sense of humor and indulgence with a writer who frequently takes the name of God in vain in rather flippant comments, the intended reading audience is likely to feel pretty intelligent themselves, with reminders that they too are subject to human frailty and lazy reasoning. Those people who bravely stand up for scientific integrity against big drug companies and their supplement subsidiaries or who write serious issue-oriented blogs are also likely to feel encouragement from the author as well, who frequently praises the integrity of bloggers. That said, a lot of people are not likely to appreciate this book, whether they are believers in various reductionistic claims that good health results from simple-minded and profitable easy fixes, or whether they are political and media figures whose ignorance of science and data can have immensely tragic consequences for ordinary people whose access to medical care requires a certain regulatory framework that serves the best interests of the commonfolk, which cannot be taken for granted.
At its heart, this book is driven by simple but deep thoughts and sensible suggestions. There is a certain sense of fatalism and despair about the way the author believes that the profit motive of big companies in the supplement and medicine business will always manage to attack and cloud judgments about the efficacy of treatments and contribute to cynicism about helpful treatments by the attacks that are made on dubious ones. The author has a great deal of faith in good data analysis and the scientific method, and sensibly believes that science articles should be focused on those who are literate and interested in science as opposed to the lowest common denominator. Many of the health fixes that the author believes in are matters of simple balance, improved public health through socioeconomic growth, and simple fixes like registers of scientific research that would draw attention to negative studies that were shelved. Whether any society has the moral courage to face the cultural causes of bad science as it relates to health, or is able to channel legitimate suspicion of big pharmaceutical businesses towards legitimate ends remains to be seen. There are certainly more than enough foolish channels for that anti-big business mindset to be diverted into, to be sure, as this book makes painfully plain. Although this is meant as a humorous book, there is a lot to mourn here, and a lot to prompt deep thoughts about science and morality.