Skip to main content

Bad Science – Ben Goldacre *****

Ben Goldacre, the author of this book, gave a keynote address at a science blogging conference I attended recently. He was funny, brash and acerbic in his attacks on poorly conducted and reported science (particularly medical science) just as he is on his excellent blog Bad Science. What remained to be seen was whether he could translate this rip-roaring success as scourge of the pseudo-scientists into the full length book form. With a few small quibbles the answer is a very loud ‘yes’. It’s excellent.
Goldacre takes on the likes of Brain Gym, homeopathy, exotic claims from the cosmetics industry, Gillian McKeith, Patrick Holford and more. It’s remarkable just how many are taken in by this pseudo-science, and Goldacre roundly and accurately criticizes the media for their wide-eyed ignorance. In his talk, he seemed to say that professional writers are rubbish and we should rely solely on real scientists’ communications. In practice this doesn’t work well as a sole approach, and in the book he is much more careful to point out that science journalists often know what they are doing, but are sometimes pushed aside by editors and generalist journalists and their opinions ignored where scientific truth is likely to get in the way of a good story.
This is a rollicking good read, blisteringly putting the likes of McKeith in their place and explaining why otherwise clever people are fooled by really very stupid things.
So to those quibbles. One is that the tone so relentlessly emphasizes ‘don’t believe them when they tell you something without detailed scientific backup’ that it means the reader gets a little irritated when Goldacre falls into the same trap himself, commenting, for instance, ‘there are forty-year-old O-level papers which are harder than the current A-level syllabus’ without offering any evidence to back up this assertion. I’m not saying it’s not true, but after he has pounded it into us, surely we shouldn’t take it from Goldacre himself without appropriate peer reviewed quality research to back the assertion up.
The other slight quibble is that Goldacre isn’t a professional writer, and though his enthusiasm and verve makes for a great speech or column, he really hasn’t quite got the hang of keeping your interest through a full book and just occasionally it gets a trifle dull. Lots of it is brilliant, but not everything is explained particularly well, and it could do with a professional polish – but the content is so superb that this really doesn’t matter.
This is definitely one of the best popular science books of the year. (And as this is a subjective review I can say that, even though I have no double blind tested, peer reviewed trials of the hypothesis to back it up.)
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…