Bad Science

by Ben Goldacre

Bad science – the title says it all. It’s a story of how we, the great British public, have been led to believe that science is indeed bad and to be feared - or at best, distrusted. At the same time, it’s about dismantling this attitude by demonstrating that the pseudoscience presented to us in ads, newspaper articles and promotional materials is just that, disguised as proper science simply in order to convince us to buy stuff.

boom book reviews - Bad Science by Ben Goldacre - cover picture

This book is the latest incarnation of Goldacre’s Bad Science empire, which began in 2003 with his weekly Bad Science column in the Saturday Guardian, and went on to colonise his own corner of cyberspace. The online incarnation of his column has become quite a collaborative endeavour – the taste for taking apart pseudoscience is, apparently, catching – with nearly 70 bloggers regularly posting to the Bad Science site to discuss each of Goldacre’s article posts, with blogs of their own. Goldacre – a practising GP, research fellow at King’s College London and member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists – has, it seems, become a kind of poster-boy evangelist heading up the Campaign for Retaliation Against Pseudoscience.

Fans will see old favourite topics covered here, with chapters on nutritionists, homeopaths and the MMR hoax. These chapters, arguably, are the most rewarding – they’re well written and persuasive, with well-developed arguments. The chapter on the placebo effect, for example, makes an excellent case for his argument that this is a far more interesting phenomenon, with at least equal if not greater therapeutic power, than that of homeopathy – but it just isn’t as sexy, nor can it make anybody as much money.

However, other chapters feel quite a lot like hastily-written filler material. The first few are meant to set up some of his key arguments about the use of pseudoscience to peddle a kind of medicalised, sciencey health that can only be achieved if we purchase some particular kind of snake oil. They do this, but only in a very limited way – for example, whilst Goldacre convincingly explains that the rusty water produced when using the Aqua Detox Footbath is not the result of mysterious-sounding ‘toxins’ leaving the body, as the manufacturers claim, we’re still left wondering just why the water is, in fact, rusty.

For those new to the Bad Science project, this is an excellent introduction – and will hopefully enable you to see the world of quackery and hoaxes with newly informed and critical eyes. However, for long-term fans this book is only worth investing in if you happen to know any homeopathy enthusiasts, or nutritionist fans you could lend it to.

three out of five