Bad Science by Ben Goldacre — A Review

A cover picture of the Book ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre. The front of the book cover is next to a text box that says ‘Hone your bullshit detector’.

In most books, the preface contains either the names of the author’s family or a few words of their gratitude/annoyance with close friends and dear ones. Not in Bad Science. Ben Goldacre decided to begin the book with the words “To whom it may concern”. Talk about setting the tone and feel of your book. I couldn’t help but smirk until I finally burst out laughing. I was immediately hooked and kept coming back to it every day until I was done. While I did find most of the concepts and dwellings easily digestible and much akin to common sense and logic of today. It was a fun and entertaining read. The sheer precision and levity with which the author has taken down the foundations of homoeopathy, nutritionists, cosmetic companies, pharmaceutical industry and anti-vaxxers is art in and of itself. Armed with logic, a fair understanding of statistics and the scientific method he proceeds to dismantle everything. And I do mean everything, every argument, sensational rumour and doubt that the deluded and deceived could and can put forth.

The scientific method is paid homage on more than one occasion within this book. And as it should be; it’s given us close to nearly everything in our modern civilization but like any other tools it can be misused or worse, used in wrong contexts and situations. Akin to using a hammer to drive in a screw and then complaining that the hammer isn’t working.

Ben Goldacre has been championing the scientific method for a fairly long time. Throughout three careers: author, journalist and physician (he might be a specialist but I’m just going by his Wikipedia page as of 2021). He is also the recipient of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his contributions to the fields of arts and sciences.

He authors a column under the same name as the title of the book ‘Bad Science’ for ‘The Guardian’ newspaper in Britain. Where he brings to light the various ways how people are either unintentionally or intentionally misguiding public perceptions towards fads and facts. Holding the snake oil salespeople of today accountable to their claims and placing any new miracle pill under the scrutiny and heavy burden of scientific evidence. He also has a fascination with a few semi-celebrities who sell, advocate for a new miracle drug/exercise/diet/routine/etc that will *insert tall medical claim* and change your life as a result. More on who they are and why within the book itself. It must be mentioned that he has no personal vendetta against them, their company or its/their various products (or so he states, I ….. Mostly believe him).

A picture of author Ben Goldacre grabbed from an article on The Observer.
The man himself.

He’s just an overly curious guy who wants to cross-check if something is actually doing what it claims to be doing. No harm in that. If the claims of those products did hold water then I’m sure he’d gladly be another buying customer.

If anything I feel like Ben wants them to be proved right and him wrong. For that would mean that humanity would be propelled and pushed forward. But, in this world of ours most claims when asked for proof turn into a debate and standoff. As a result fact and fiction can no longer be differentiated and credibility is turned into a popularity contest. Where either side turns into a creed. Which hinders our pursuit towards the truth and leaves none the wiser.

NOTE:- Science is neither a belief nor a faith, it is a tool. A method of continuous observations tried, tested and ever-changing. A statement such as ‘All the science of yesterday is wrong as far as the science of today is concerned’ is oxymoronic. Since science is not constant. Anyway back to the book…

I picked up bad science last year and hadn’t gotten around to it until this year. I had purchased it a week before the first Lockdown in Bangalore. During a quick trip to a second hand, bookstore racking up on a few reads for the quarantine. You know, something to do during the lockdown. Two weeks into lockdown and about halfway through the book I had to put it down after my grandmother had tested positive for COVID-19. So yeah that happened.

At the height of this pandemic, there was so much misinformation, false news forwards, videos, and just media in general that it was hard to keep track.

Huh? Grandma? Oh, she’s fine, no worries. She’s stronger than ever, her sense of smell and taste are back. In fact, once she was discharged and while we were in home quarantine she perpetually reminded me of her returning sense of taste by commenting on my cooking. But that’s not why you’re here. Back to the book, yet again.

From banging plates and thalis to produce vibrations whose resonance would eradicate the virus to how lighting lamps would dispel its evil intentions. There were even various baba’s that sold supplements that claimed to protect one against the virus. All sorts of healers, godmen, quacks and anyone with a traditional medicine certification and an old orange veshti or lungi sprout forth from all corners of our glorious country to educate and help in eradicating the virus. How? Simply buy their magic pill that solves a certain complex social problem and all will be good. Amidst all this madness and blatant fear profiteering. I thought it’d be a good time to get back to this book.

Would I have read this book anyway later on? Most definitely, yes.

I loved chapters 4.‘Homeopathy’ and 8.’Pill Solves Complex Social Problem’.

He explains why Homeopathy isn’t a science and the reasons why it tends to work for some people. Without talking down, sermonizing and lecturing or even discouraging the reader or those who believe in it. He doesn’t try to change your belief or reasoning or ask you to justify why you use homoeopathy.

Instead, all Goldacre tries to get across is the science behind it. How exactly does homoeopathy work and what does the medical academic studies have to say about it?

Note:- You are your own person and as any other person, you are allowed your opinions and beliefs. Having said that, you are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. Huge difference.

In ‘Pill solves complex social problem’. My belief in Cod Liver Oil was challenged and I had to face the ugly truth that I was a victim of marketing. As I have consumed several bottles of Sea Cod Liver Fish Oil while I was a growing boy and I felt as if it did help me and make a difference especially during Finals week. Although as Goldman highlights in the chapter it seems it might have just been placebo. Oh well, it helped. Later as the chapter continued I had a tougher pill to swallow. And this time it was no fish oil. However, it was a pill that has made me wiser if not smarter. So I’ll take it. Or has it been marketed that way?

A ammeter like apparatus but it measures bullshit. The scale reads bullshit amplifier detector. The needle is maxed out.
What’s that smell?

The chapter that I found the most moving and mind-blowing is hands down Chapter 10 ‘The doctor will sue you now’.

The power of media and the dangers of unfounded advertising claims are laid bare as Ben explains how because of one man in the UK, the AIDs epidemic in south Africa had exacerbated to skyrocketing levels causing more than 3,30,000 unnecessary and preventable deaths. Not to mention the number of babies unnecessarily born with HIV when mother-to-child transmission could have been easily and cheaply prevented by the state. A tragic and unbelievable read.

New words and sayings that I learnt.

The new words and sayings I learnt from this book are:-

  1. Oeuvre (/ˈəːvr(ə)/):- Meaning the body of work of a painter, author or musician.
  2. Faux pas (/ˈfō-ˌpä/):- Meaning an embarrassing error or mistake. On an ethical scale. Such as burping in public.

This book is very relevant and will continue to remain so even though people are much smarter than we usually give them credit for. We’re still suckers for a good story though. And good stories are what charmers, snake oil salesmen, homoeopathy and traditional medicine are all about (not all but most). Don’t believe me? Ask your grandparents why they believe in a certain traditional regional cure during evening tea and kick back as they’d go on to tell you a tale about some aunt or uncle of yours who once had a certain illness and did the following which rid them of the ailment as their only explanation. If not a personal story they’d point us towards the oldest storybook, the Vedic texts and other epics.

I’d recommend this book to pretty much everybody. It’s humorous and makes light work of a serious and sombre topic. Given the pandemic and social media’s ease in spreading misinformation, quick fixes and remedies, bogus scientific facts, forwards about the genius of tradition and some past civilizations achievements. It comes as a necessary and grounded read. I’m glad I picked up this book during the lockdown at peak misinformation wave churning time period. If I had read it earlier I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate how bad science is professed, supported and marketed as the only narrative. How media and advertising help build that narrative and how our psyche prevents us from changing it with ease.

A top down picture of the front cover of the book ‘Bad Science’.

While I wouldn’t necessarily re-read this entire book I do see myself coming back to certain chapters to supplement my future arguments and debates. I will be reading more by Ben Golacre though as soon as I can afford more books. My eyes are on “I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That” and “Bad Pharma”. “Bad Pharma” first though.

If you’d like to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth then here are TED talks by Ben Goldacre himself:

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Abhijay Arjunan

Abhijay Arjunan

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I use Medium as a sounding board for the various ideas and observations I come across. And to occasionally vent about my long list of pending DIY projects.