How often have you looked at ridiculous ‘pop science’ stories in a newspaper or on the television and wondered whether it’s actually based on real scientific evidence?
Outrageous claims abound in popular media, such as “vaccines cause autism” and “fish oil pills cure ADHD”; their recent popularity can make even the most ill-informed layperson raise their eyebrows.
But where does one even begin debunking this “bad science”?
Dr. Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science might be the answer.
Dr. Ben Goldacre is a British physician and academic, most popular for his column called “Bad Science” in The Guardian. The book is a collection of several “bad science” stories that are popular in media and culture. He uses them to help the reader cultivate a scientific temperament and teaches fundamental skills required to differentiate good science from bad.
This book espouses that with little knowledge in science, but equipped with some common sense and logic, as well as genuine curiosity, anyone can understand even the most complicated aspects of science. It attempts to ignite this exact scientific attitude in laypeople, which will help them question every ‘science-adjacent’ claim in media and not simply swallow it whole just ‘because science said so’.
Dr. Goldacre does his debunking with humor and sarcasm interwoven with science in order to expose how corporations constantly use the media to create fake narratives around real science.
Goldacre starts with a ‘build your own experiment’ section and explains how to test a theory. Science is simple and logical, not a “black box” that can only be understood by trained scientists, says the book. It breaks down the invisible wall between the untrained public and science; you, the reader, can just as easily decode the science behind several “scientific” claims in media.
The book uses the example of homeopathy to explain the power of the placebo effect and how it is exploited by alternative medicine to sell fake claims in the name of science. The book also provides a detailed account of the empire of nutritionists that is almost completely ruled by false claims not backed up by scientific evidence. Dr. Goldacre doesn’t shy away from dropping names of the people or companies involved in order to be clear with his audience.
The last part of the book is devoted to how science is misrepresented by the media and teaches the reader some basics of statistics that will help to separate facts from the fiction being reported. The book dedicates ample space to explaining how such errors have ‘grave consequences’, even leading to the loss of lives.
Bad Science Book Review
Goldacre’s sharp logic and wit will make you think, question, and even laugh out loud, as he lays bare the absurdities sold in the name of science to the uninformed public. At no point in the book is the content too heavy or bogged down in jargon. And the book is definitely not boring, thanks to the ridiculousness of several of these “scientific” claims listed in the book.
If one is to point out a flaw in the book, it would be its Western lens. There are a large amount of examples – people and companies – in the book from the UK, making them at times less relevant to a reader who is not a local. Several chapters are devoted to UK-based corporate organizations that built their empires on “bad science”.
This might fall flat for a global audience who didn’t experience these stories, so the extent of the “circus” could be easily lost.
Although the book is targeted at the general public, the last few chapters about the role of media are a must-read for any aspiring scientific writer or journalist. It outlines the pitfalls of bad reporting and writing in science.
The book is unique in its attitude towards the lay public, not treating them as dumb onlookers incapable of logical judgments. The author does not “dumb down” any topic, but instead instills confidence that anyone is capable of the same level of scientific temper as a scientist. This sets the book apart from other popular science books, which often knowingly or unknowingly “water down” the science for the reader.
In the last chapter of the book, the author says, “Unmediated access to niche expertise is the future, and you know, science isn’t hard”. Making science easy and accessible is the primary goal of the book, and it does so in a tasteful manner packed with humor and wit. Dr. Ben Goldacre even goes so far as to claim that “there is no need to seduce the uninterested” by dumbing down science, because such simplification has grave consequences.
After finishing the book, the reader will find themselves equipped with the most basic skills required to identify good science. The language of science will no longer sound “alien” or look like it is directed at lab coat-wearing experts spitting jargon. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the author has snatched the power of scientific temper and judgment too often vested in the hands of a few experts and distributed it to the willing masses.