badscience – the book

I’m back. Yes, it was a great holiday – & no – it wasn’t long enough 🙂 And yes, I did spend a lot of time lying around under an umbrella by the water, reading books & generally applying myself to relaxing.

Anyway, one of those books was Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which follows on from his blog of the same name. If anyone’s looking for a book which covers basic scientific principles, illustrates the nature of science, shoots down pseudoscience, & shows why science is so important – all in a lovely down-to-earth & entertaining way – then this should be at the top of your list. I’d recommend it not only as excellent reading for all interested people, but also as a great classroom resource. 

Need more convincing? Then read on…

Well, Ben starts off by talking about learning the basics of science through examination of some of the more outlandish pseudoscientific claims going the rounds. I’ve mentioned ear candling myself – another example he looks at is the supposed action of ‘detoxifying footbaths’. And, more importantly, at how to do a controlled test for the claims made for this ‘treatment’. (While also pointing out that this is not the best project to pick for a class demonstration, due to the risk of giving an electric shock.) Ben goes on to talk about what these ‘detox’ regimes really are (since they’re manifestly not science-based, regardless of the claims made for them) & concludes that they’re perhaps best regarded as cultural products – purification rituals, if you prefer.

You can go on to read abou the placebo effect, which is absolutely fascinating. Taken to its extremes, even the packaging of a treatment can be effective. A 1981 study looked at 835 women with headaches, who were given either aspirin or a placebo pill. Both pills came in one of two packages: a blank, neutral-coloured box, or a box with typical bright, branded cover. What did the researchers find? That aspirin had more effect than placebo – but also that the packaging itself had a beneficial effect, enhancing the benefit of both the placebo and the aspirin.

Or be alerted to some of the common errors made when journalists report on ‘scientific’ claims, and those making them. Hearing these reports, Ben recommends asking: do the data actually exist? Are we looking at observation, or intervention (which should be a concern when people are making cause-&-effect claims)? Can we justifiably claim that, if something works in a petri dish or a test tube, it will also work in the body? And have the data been cherry-picked, so that you hear only those bits that support the case being made.

Or… but no, I won’t tell you everything – get hold of a copy & check it out for yourself.

But I will finish off by quoting Ben’s final paragraph – and this is for any of you who’ve considered writing a science blog yourselves. If you’re passionate about science:

Start a blog. Not everyone will care, but some will, and they will find your work. Unmediated access yo niche expertise is in the future, and you know, science isn’t hard – … it just requires motivation. I give you the CERN podcast, the Science & the City mp3 lecture series, blogs from profs, open access academic journal articles from PLOS, online video archives of popular lectures, the free editions of the Royal Statistical Society’s magazine Significance, and many more, waiting for you to join them. There’s no money in it, but you knew that when you started on this path. You will do it because you know that knowledge is beautiful, and because if only a hundred people share your passion, that is enough.

Ben Goldacre (2008) Bad Science. Fourth Estate.

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