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.
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