Thursday, 28 January 2010

An angry scientist

A rare visit to non-fiction land this time, with the book of the newspaper column of the blog, Bad Science, by the medical doctor Ben Goldacre.

As a regular reader of Goldacre's column, I mistakenly figured this for a collection of his columns, so waited till it graced the 3-for-2 table before picking it up. As it turns out, while it does pick up a number of stories from his column, it does so in much greater detail, and uses the format to fill in background material that, while important, would be less than engrossing in newsprint. In terms of its topic, while Goldacre occasionally makes general asides on "bad science", his book focuses largely on its appearance in medicine and related healthcare.

As such, he takes in familiar (and deserving) targets such as homeopathy, MMR and quacks with varying degrees of public endangerment, including "Dr." Gillian McKeith, Patrick Holford and Matthias Rath. The latter I was aware of because of a well-publicised (after the fact) libel trial that Rath took out against Goldacre and The Guardian. As it happens, the example of Rath, following on as it does from the lesser crimes of McKeith and Holford, illustrates just how pernicious and dangerous modern-day quacks can be. That there is a long history of quacks is not surprising, especially when one considers what once passed for mainstream medicine; that they persist to this day alongside modern medicine, and frequently make outrageous and deadly claims, is pretty shocking.

Which brings me to what I think is the book's strength: Goldacre's cold, contained rage. While he writes quite wittily at times, and certainly isn't averse to making fun of various "alternative medicine" targets, he's clearly very angry about much of what he describes. But he's able to channel this well, and he writes carefully and methodically, avoiding simply stirring the reader up with exasperating tales of money-printing quacks. He's also pretty good, at leading the reader into mildly technical topics, and he does so without (in my opinion) patronising the less familiar reader. But, throughout it all, his passion to rout the "bad science" he describes is engaging. And is pretty infectious - I found myself eye-rollingly livid on more than a few occasions.

Another aspect of the book which greatly strengthens its power is Goldacre's tackling of more mainstream targets such as the drug companies and the media. These get, and justifiably so, much the same scrutiny as the book's early anti-science bugbears. In particular, the chapter on how the media presents - and misrepresents - scientific stories is one that's of wider interest and use to scientists beyond medicine. I really enjoyed these chapters, and Goldacre's savaging of these institutions alongside the easier alt-med targets made the book a much more balanced read than I originally thought it might turn out to be. I shouldn't have been surprised given the range of his newspaper column, but given the shamelessness of so many quacks, I'd not have blamed him if he just focused his beatings on their turf.

Overall, a very enjoyable if simultaneously enraging read. Doubtless not the most thorough on this subject, but done well. And you've got to love his anger.

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