Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Lowdown: Raising awareness to the way science is publicly misrepresented and the damage that causes.
The way I familiarized myself with Ben Goldacre is testimony for what can be achieved through modern technology. I first “met” Goldcare through Twitter re-tweets; then, when I was curious enough, I started following him on Twitter myself to learn of his Bad Science blog and column with The Guardian. Then I found out he's an atheist by reading his contribution to The Atheist's Guide to Christmas. Then I learned of his book, Bad Science, which summarizes a lot of what Goldacre is saying in his various online resources and decided to jump the bandwagon.
In many way, Bad Science takes Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World further. Sagan focused more on the philosophical aspects of science and its importance in today’s society; Goldacre goes along by taking us through ongoing and escalating examples of cases where science is being misrepresented before the public and, as we go along, explains what the problems are, how they affect us, and what can be done to rectify the situation. According to Goldacre, at is as if the very complexity that brings us technological wonders is also working against us when it comes to understanding what lies behind it. That, plus - as Goldacre shows - the fact that we seem to have grown fond of misrepresenting science.
Goldacre starts with obviously bogus scientific claims (e.g., homeopathy) and moves forward with less obvious examples, all of which are pretty relevant: detox, the adventures of various nutritionists and big pharma, the treatment of AIDS in South Africa and various court cases. In all these cases science has a major saying but science is also routinely misquoted or twisted to serve some narrow commercial needs, and Goldacre points his fingers at those culprits as well as the various tools they use to get their way – mostly the bad way science is reported in mainstream media, where populism beats accuracy every time.
The overall image is pretty scary and Bad Science acts as quite the eye opener in the sense that it shows some of the traps each and every one of us fell into from time to time if not most of the time when we think we know it all or we take someone's word for it when we shouldn't. Despite its non fiction nature, Bad Science is a thrilling and pleasurable read: Goldacre knows how to drive the narrative home despite the lack of a plot or characters to identify with, aided by a sense of humor that would put many a stand-up comedian to shame. Check his style for yourself through this presentation of his, touching many of the points raised in the book:

Ben Goldacre Talks Bad Science from PopTech on Vimeo.

There can be no doubt as to the importance and relevancy of Bad Science’s message to today’s society. I live in a country where, according to surveys, more than 40% of the population does not “believe” humanity has had a hand in the shaping of earth’s climate despite the substantial science on the matter. Still, those 40% plus vote and help shape my country’s policies on climate change. In effect, their ignorance in science and the way science is misrepresented to them mean that future generations will have to pay a heftier price in order to deal with the climate and the grimmer world we're leaving behind.
Or, more the the book's point, as a book dealing mostly with personal health issues rather earth scale affairs: I live in a country where whopping cough has become a baby killing epidemic despite the easy availability of effective immunisation for the very simple reason that quacks have managed to convince enough people they don't need the immunisation or that the immunisation would harm them and/or their child. When such simple ignorance costs lives you know something has to be done concerning people's perception of scientific affairs.
Bad Science reads like a 4 star book, but I will give it 4.5 out of 5 stars because it’s very rare to have books of such relevancy and importance deliver their goods in such an approachable and readable way. Goldacre is obviously very talented at popularizing science.

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