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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …