Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: Bad Science

Ben Goldacre is a name I had not heard till I found this book in the staff recommendations for Seattle Public Library. My loss. Goldacre is a science writer from the UK who targets shoddy science in all its forms save academic fraud. That means nutritionists, homeopaths, big pharma, and especially vaccine deniers get skewered by his clear, bracing prose. I think he's very much right on very most of the issues he specifically talks about. His second chapter on the placebo effect I found to be absolutely fascinating on a theological level -- what is the natural theology of the placebo effect, considering it is very, very strong and in its own way effective? -- but then he'll drop in a needless materialist "Dawkinsism" (NMD) equating theologians with liars or something like that and he'll lose me for a few pages while I grumble back at him.

His clarion call at the end of the book for the goal of good science writing stirs my soul too, and his suggestion for clear numbers like "natural frrequencies" is a bandwagon I'm wholly behind. I will try to do some of that in my own writing. But I wonder at the end of the book, since all his cases are clear and forcefully made, why does his argument add up to be less than the sum of its parts? Why is he such a lone voice in the wilderness in the sense that MMR vaccine deniers will get halfway around the world while he's still putting his shoes on? Let me be clear, I am on his side, and enroll my children in vaccine trials, for crying out loud. As a convinced reader, I want him to be more convincing than he is to the unconvinced.

If I had to say one thing it's that, even though his byline is "it's a bit more complicated than that", that he simplifies human experience too much. Reading this book, it seems like it's easy to do clear science and that the only real obstacle is widespread ignorance, which makes the questioning reader not just wrong but stupid, and I presume they stop listening (like my example with his swipe at theologians). Ignorance is very much a factor, but reading Bad Science so soon after reading the incredibly nuanced and back and forth arguments of how cancer therapies historically developed found in the Emperor of All Maladies, I'm left finding the latter book (formerly read) as more educational about "real science", more emotionally resonant and therefore more persuasive for many of the very same things Goldacre argues for. The full frontal assault that is a clear argument like Goldacre's is sometimes unfair because science is not all built from the best science. Some scientific bricks are imperfect, as shown in Emperor of All Maladies, but they still produce progress. I would have liked this book much more, in other words, if it drew out the fascinating implications of the placebo chapter and spent less time piling on to the already discredited. But I'm also listening in on this conversation: it's really for a UK audience and as a US reader I have different priorities.

At the end of the day, how many more flies do you catch with honey rather than vinegar?

1 comment:

The Equation said...

This is a frightening read about the state of the western world. Highly entertaining and very educational.