/ Cory Doctorow / 7 am Tue, Jan 20 2015
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  • I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That

    I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That

    Over the past decade, pharma-fighting Dr Ben Goldacre has written more than 500,000 words of fearlessly combative science journalism.

    The new collection of Goldacre's essays is more than a best-of (though it is that), it's also a crash course in statistical literacy, informed skepticism, and public policy debates.

    Goldacre is one of the UK's foremost proponents of evidence-based policy -- figuring out what works best, through careful study, and doing that. The evidence-based policy crowd sometimes gets accused of dressing up ideology in scientific lab-coats and insisting that there is a kind of empirical best way to govern, but as these essays make clear, that's not what Goldacre is about. He recognises that there are questions that are purely political -- the decision, for example, that we want to protect wider society from the negative affects of drug abuse, is a political one. But the empirical question that arises from that is, "What do we mean by 'protect'?" and "What works best for attaining that outcome?"

    And this is where things get ugly. Because politicians and regulators say that they want to attain outcomes that get broad support -- shortening emergency-room waiting times, students who read fluently and criticially, a vibrant technology sector -- but what they do to attain these goals is very often a nonsense, a mix of ideological red-meat for their supporters ("We want to show the voters that we won't coddle drug addicts!") and frank corruption ("We've decided that the best way to get kids reading is by making all the schools buy this expensive phonics package that makes this person who happens to advise the committee on educational standards extremely rich"). It's the kind of thing that makes former UK drugs czar David Nutt's spectacular Drugs Without the Hot Air such an important read.

    This is the bullseye at the centre of the evidence-based policy fight, but there's a lot going on around the edges: university press-releases that trumpet headline results from studies that aren't supported by the data; deluded or crooked "alternative health practicioners" whose "therapies" do nothing or make people sicker; conflicts between the business-models of scholarly publishers and the scientific method, which requires that scientific knowledge be spread widely for the purposes of verification and study; political grandstanding over "big data" and its power to find the terrorist needle in the surveillance haystack by making the haystack as big as possible; pharma companies that deliberately (and criminally) obscure their research data in order to reap titanic profits; the Daily Mail (which has embarked on a multi-decade project to divide the entire world into things that either cause or cure cancer); and, strangely, postmodern academics who call evidence-based policy "fascism" because there is no objective reality.

    Goldacre slays each and every one of these with his pen, using a mixture of wit and beautifully constructed arguments, and a generally cool head. Though this book is huge (406 pages plus notes), it rips by very quickly, because Goldacre is a real master of the short newspaper column form, conveying bite-sized arguments in 400-800 word chunks that, while related closely to one another, are each intended to stand alone. I read the whole thing on a two-hour plane-journey.

    James Boyle's The Public Domain argues that we need a word for "information politics" that ties together all the different ways in which the fights over patents, copyrights, transparency, privacy, and other causes that have come to the fore in the digital age; a word that does for the digital civil liberties movement what "ecology" did for all the disparate movements that came under its umbrella in the 1970s. Once, we thought saving whales, stopping acid rain, worrying about the ozone layer, and preventing toxic spills were all different causes, but the word ecology gave us a neat way to discuss them as a single cause, with many underlying issues.

    I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That" is a book about information ecology. Goldacre believes that technology can improve our lives: help us live longer, happier, fairer lives in happier, fairer societies. He shows how these political questions are all tied together, how caring about the surveillance economy of the war on terror is necessary if you also care about the big data projects to uncover subtle facts about public health, and how these both relate to Internet censorship, libel law, and the business-models of the scholarly publishing industry.

    If there's anything I don't like about the book, it's the title. I confess to hating the phrase, "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that," because it is too often the rallying cry of the kind of science writer whose mission in life is to tell us to stop being so darned excited about science, who wants to point out that the news that's cheered and amazed us isn't all that big a deal. It's a phrase Goldacre himself cherishes, too.

    But Goldacre isn't a science killjoy. He is firmly committed to the project of making people amazed and delighted by science -- just not by bad science. He believes that good science is amazing, and when he rails against the tabloids (or the BBC!) for getting science badly wrong, it's because they've missed the real point, the real, amazing truth about the incredible progress being made all around us.

    I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That [US]

    I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That [UK]

    -Cory Doctorow

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