Ben Goldacre is pissed off. Very pissed off indeed. What really gets his goat is bullshit, if I am permitted to mix my farm animals, and in particular bullshit that is dressed up as science.
Bad Science is a 300 page rant against nutritionists, health experts, pharmaceutical companies, homoeopathy, so-called experts, government statistics, and newspapers. Especially newspapers. He takes them all to task in spectacularly entertaining fashion. I have never been so shocked and appalled at the same time as being thoroughly amused.
Goldacre wants proof of the spurious claims that bounce around the media purporting to be fact.
He wants to know why so many of our children are being taught Brain Gym techniques in their schools. This is a system of nutrition and exercise designed to get their little minds working. One of their tips is to drink lots of water, which is no bad thing. However, they encourage kids to hold the water in their mouths because 'it can be absorbed directly from there into your brain' which is, of course, ridiculous. Drinking water, taking regular breaks and intermittent light exercise is all good stuff, Goldacre maintains, but surrounding it with scientific mumbo-jumbo, and inaccurate mumbo-jumbo at that, is a bad thing for everyone involved.
He wants to know why Gillian McKeith is allowed airtime and a multi-million pound nutrition empire when she is, and I quote, 'a joke'. He then goes on to list all the reasons why he thinks she is a quack and once you have read them you will be staggered that she has been able to enjoy the success she has, if you haven't been so already. Looking at fat people's poo might make for popular television (does it?!) but it doesn't make her theories plausible.
He wants to know why the media created the MMR scare, something that has had no positive impact on the incidences of autism but has given lots of kids measles. And why all the positive MRSA tests 'exposed' in the press came from some poor bloke working from a shed who was clearly out of his depth. And more, lots lots more.
Any example of bad science annoys him, but he reserves his greatest criticism for the media, and newspapers in particular. And here I shall pause for an aside.
I stopped using newspapers as a source of news nearly three years ago. I was involved in the Competition Committee's investigation into the purchase of Ottakars by Waterstone's as a representative of the latter. I therefore knew most, if not all, of the detail of the story. What I saw reported in the vast majority of newspapers (i.e. all bar one) was inaccurate, biased and, much of the time, bullshit. I wasn't so naive as to think our press was squeaky clean but I was genuinely surprised at quite how wrong they were prepared to be and how much nonsense they were happy to present as fact. We are not talking about the tabloids here, they weren't interested in the story at all, but our serious broadsheets. It dawned on me that the same newspapers I was relying on to bring me political news, updates on world events, cultural commentary and insight on areas where my knowledge was limited were printing utter bollocks about the subject I knew a fair bit about. Ergo they could well be wide of the mark on every other subject as well. They lost my trust, limited though it was beforehand, completely.
If I hadn't already reached that point under my own steam then Bad Science would certainly have got me there. It includes numerous examples of journalists misreporting facts, or distorting data to create a scary headline, of editors taking science stories away from science writers to ensure the right spin. And, most worrying of all, their repeated inability to correct their mistakes when new facts come to light.
It is a shocker. I defy you to read this book and trust newspapers again. Many of you will already take your daily paper with a pinch of salt but you'll be needing an entire salt pig full of the stuff in future.
But I don't want to paint too serious a picture of this book. Sure, it tackles big serious subjects, but it never takes itself too seriously and there is at least a smirk to be had on every page. I would consider it essential reading for anyone with even just a passing interest in science or how our media works today. It is already a bestseller so needs no help from me or this review but it is one of the most impressive books I have read this year and I feel duty bound to alert you to it.
It will, quite possibly, change your life. Or, at least, the way you look at it.
Oh, and check out the Bad Science website as well.