Bad Science comes to the USA: Ben Goldacre's tremendous woo-fighting book in print in the States

Dr Ben Goldacre's UK bestseller Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks is finally in print in the USA, and Americans are lucky to have it. Goldacre writes a terrific Guardian column analyzing (and debunking) popular science reporting, and has been a star in the effort to set the record straight on woowoo "nutritionists," doctors who claim that AIDS can be cured with vitamins, and vaccination/autism scares.

Bad Science is more than just a debunking expose (though it is that): it's a toolkit for critical thinking, a primer on statistics and valid study design, a guide to meta-analysis and other tools for uncovering and understanding truth. It is, furthermore, an extraordinary account of "the cultural impact of nonsense," "the medicalization of everyday life" and "the undermining of sense." Goldacre's work is rigorous, intellectually honest, and plays no favorites: for every brick he tosses through the window of the homeopaths, he tosses two more through the windows of Big Pharma, whose bloated marketing budgets and dodgy science put us all at risk.

"Nonsense" is big business: companies selling "Brain Gyms" are getting rich off publicly funded schools that buy texts advising students to "Make a 'C' shape with your thumb and forefinger and place on either side of the breast bone just below the collar bone. Gently rub for 20 or 30 seconds whilst placing your other hand over your navel. Change hands and repeat. This exercise stimulates the flow of oxygen-carrying blood through the carotid arteries to the brain to awaken it and increase concentration and relaxation... Brain buttons lie directly over and stimulate the carotid arteries." Goldacre notes wryly, "I'm waiting to be very impressed by any kid who can stimulate his carotid arteries inside his ribcage, but it's going to involve dissection with the sharp scissors that only mummy can use."

Brain Gyms may be obscure unless your kid has come home from "science" class with a head full of poor anatomy, but who among us hasn't been advised to take "anti-oxidants" to fight cancer, old age, and a host of ailments (this despite the wide-ranging, well-designed studies that show that while people with some cancers show depressed levels of anti-oxidant, people who take anti-oxidant pills have slightly higher incidents of cancer).

Anti-oxidants are just the tip of the "Nutritionist" iceberg, which has its roots in nutjobs like the cornflake pioneer John Kellogg, who also advocated fighting masturbation through the application of carbolic acid to the clitoris. From Kellogg onwards, the field has been filled with equally odd characters, such as the millionaire TV presenter Gillian McKeith, who has been forced to drop the "Doctor" from her list of titles due to the fact that her PhD was awarded by a non-accredited mail-order diploma mill. McKeith advocates taking food high in chlorophyll to increase your oxygen levels. This despite the fact that chlorophyll makes oxygen in the presence of sunshine (Goldacre: "It's pretty dark inside your bowels; in fact, if there's any light in there at all, something's gone badly wrong.", and "your bowel is optimized to absorb food, while your lungs are optimized to absorb oxygen. You do not have gills in your bowels.") Goldacre's analysis of McKeith's bestselling books and hit TV shows prompted dire legal threats from McKeith's representatives, followed by an adorably stupid collection of tweets from the "Doctor."

But McKeith isn't the worst of them. Goldacre's chapter on Matthias Rath, a European millionaire vitamin entrepreneur who has been key in the South African policy of eschewing the use of antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS in favor of vitamins, was omitted from the UK edition of Bad Science after Rath sued Goldacre for writing about his beliefs and activities. The suit was settled in Goldacre's favor (after The Guardian shelled out £700,000 in legal fees) and the chapter is included in the US edition in all its infuriating glory. (Goldacre has also put this chapter online under a Creative Commons license).

There's lots more to love in this book -- like the chapter on the MMR vaccination/autism scare that resulted in untold suffering by innocent children whose parents were terrorized into staying away from life-saving vaccinations; the chapter on Big Pharma's sleazy study methodology, and an eye-popping chapter on the poorly understood, near-miraculous placebo effect. This book should be required reading for everyone who cares about health, science, and public policy.

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks


  1. I bought this book when I was in London (I’m Canadian), and I lugged it around for the whole trip…I wish I had known it was coming to North America!

    The version we have here seems much smaller than the one I bought in London, do you know if it’s different? Maybe it’s just a difference in text size.

    I love the new cover!

  2. Hey Cory,

    Care to give us an idea of Goldacre’s “Big Pharma Flaks”? I venture an assumption that for every bottle of snake oil sold by said salesman, he sells three as a result of Big Pharm’s Big Phlops and Phailures. Our continued witness of pharmaceutical companies questionable ethics with regard to double blind placebo study results and all too frequent harmful side effects has really done more damage than homeopathy on public health. Mainly, because it has introduced the pariah of well founded DOUBT to the consumer, making him vulnerable to “Quacks and Hacks”.

    You really do not give that side enough of your attention Cory, wish you would, otherwise you start to sound a little like those you, dare I say, villify?

    1. I just listened to Goldacre on the last SGU podcast and I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while now.

      And bklynchris, you certainly have a point, although I don’t see the need to call Cory out on this. The problems of Big Pharma are worth continually highlighting, although the snake oil out there predates Big Pharma. Homeopathy, Chiropractic and a number of related disciplines are all holdovers from 19th century spiritualism. (Many other “alt meds” that we think are ancient, such as acupuncture and reflexology, weren’t codified until the 20th century.) I can’t see how we can hope to reform modern medicine while we’re still clinging to unscientific fantasy.

      And, at the risk of sounding like a cheerleader, the fact is that drugs are essential. They are, in fact, the only thing that works. I wouldn’t want to live in the world before insulin, antibiotics, vaccines or targeted therapeutics. (Worth a read is a new book about the discovery of insulin, called “Breakthrough” actually shows where industry — Eli Lily, in this case — saved the day. )

      The problem comes in when industry is focused on working the approval system/maximizing shareholder impact than on new drug discovery. In the SGU podcast, Goldacre called for better scrutiny, transparency, and, yes, better collaboration with academia. Its worth a listen:

      Lastly, I’d like to point out that Alternative Medicine is, in the US, at least, a multi-billion, poorly regulated industry.

      1. The sad thing about insulin is that it is a treatment (yes it provides the ability for many to live a average length life), not a cure. And i am unsure how much eli lily have spent looking for a actual cure.

        Remember that a treatment can be sold repeatedly, while a cure only once…

  3. Interesting… According to McKeith’s website, the organization she earned her “PhD” from is Clayton College of Natural Health, which “is licensed with the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education.” Yet Alabama’s Dept. of Postsecondary Education website does not list Clayton College of Natural Health as being licensed by the state. Furthermore, the site takes pains to point out that being licensed “is not associated with accreditation.”

    I personally am a big believer in a lot of aspects of holistic health and healing, so it’s a shame that greedy lowlifes like McKeith give the entire field a bad name in their attempts to enrich themselves.

  4. The only thing Cory forgot to mention, IMO, is just how entertaining the book is. I lent this book to my non-sciencey colleague, who loved it so much she bought one for every member of her extended family last christmas (amongst other stuff I hasten to add- she’s not tight!)

  5. “Translation required on Comment #1 – STAT!”

    “Big Pharm’s Big Phlops and Phailures” = Chemical Companies Cwaks and Clacks.

    1. “Hmmm….cure cancer or create monkey slaves…cancer…slaves…cancer…slaves…oh I can’t decide.” The cover captures the internal dialog of most scientists.

  6. #2-no, ask someone else, maybe #4

    #5-Yes, I guess I am calling Corey out, but not in a bad way. My mother is Type I diabetic diagnosed in the 60’s, daughter an epileptic, and brother has had juvenile glaucoma for 20+ years. That said, I literally, owe my mother’s life to insulin, daughter’s functional well being to zarontin, and brother’s sight to pressure lowering eye drops. Yes, I get it. The successes are many, the failures in the shadows, but failures have an impact on people’s lives as profound as the successes. And spent 10 years in the trenches of medical and clinical research…it is ugly and scary. Thus my capitalized emphasis on the harm of doubt.

    #6-thank you, will look into it, if I have not already lived it.

    And to everyone, am buying Goldacre’s book, AND reading it (for me, sadly often, the two are not mutually inclusive).

    1. Not to beat on the topic too much, but also check out that SGU podcast. Goldacre says some interesting things about the under-reporting of scientific trials by pharma and the need for more transparency.

  7. I am soooo excited for this. I tried to grab this on audible, for my subwaytimes in the morning, but, sadly, I wasn’t in the right regional zone to purchase it. Hopefully this will change, or i will at the least grab the kobo edition!

  8. “The problem comes in when industry is focused on working the approval system”

    Which would indicate that the approval system is in need of some changes….

  9. I am very excited to read this book, of course. I am a skeptical scientist and love this kind of stuff. My worry is that this, like many books of this sort, mainly appeals to the people who least need to read it. Preaching to the choir, essentially.

  10. If you haven’t read Goldacre’s stuff, he is firmly on the side of science — which means he makes enemies both among the the hippie newage astral projection and acupuncture set as well as among the corporate set trying to suppress publication of papers showing that that the latest wonder drug isn’t so wonderful. He is brave in that typically these two sets try to claim that critics are in the other camp rather than realize that science has no loyalty to either.

  11. Jonathan Badger has it spot in. Goldacre is an advocate of scientific method, in other words of challenging bullshit everywhere. It’s not the case that big pharma BAD means alternative medicine GOOD or vice-versa. And homeopathy is still bullshit whoever is selling it.

  12. You know, it’s sad that books like these actually have to be written and published.
    One would hope that there will some day be an “Anti-Bullshit” class taught in school to children.
    “How Not to Be a Complete Sucker 101″.

  13. ….And just like that, I bought the e-Book on my nook.

    Saw this article, grabbed the 20-page sample and immediately grabbed it. Goldacre’s focus is clearly just trying to banish hobgoblins and admonish those responsible for promoting them without proper research or even the most simple vetting.

    The writing is amusing but enlightening. So far, it’s evoked a strong sense of the Amazing Randi, which is a Good Thing.

  14. I’ve had this recommended by a few clinical psychologists. I bought the UK version on Book Depository yesterday. I’m looking forward to receiving it :)

  15. Just FYI, later editions of the book in the UK had the Matthias Rath chapter reinstated, after the lawsuit was settled in Goldacre’s favour.

    I can’t recommend the book highly enough. Great stuff.

  16. I printed out and read the AIDS chapter except; it was lying around my livingroom later and a friend saw it. And read it. And brought it home to show to other people, and I suspect it travelled from there.

    I’m ordering this now.

  17. Kellogg also recommended male circumcision as a cure for masturbation, but no-one seems to care too much about that one.

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