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Bad Science

Ben Goldacre
HarperPerennial, 288pp, 9780007240197

Bad ScienceThere is an amusing account of a filmed encounter between the author and paranormal researcher Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Dawkins for Channel 4's Enemies of Reason. According to Sheldrake, Dawkins declared that there was no evidence for the paranormal. Sheldrake, having sent some research to Dawkins the previous week, asked him what he made of it.

'I don't want to discuss evidence,' Dawkins allegedly replied. 'There isn't time. It's too complicated.' Research? Far too complicated for a two-hour upmarket Channel 4 documentary, sorry! You couldn't wish for a better summation of Bad Science. It's a damning portrayal of the public misunderstanding of science.

Goldacre is a doctor and writer. As readers of his masterful Guardian column would expect, Bad Science is an entertaining and accessible book. His targets are mostly connected to issues of health, but the understanding gleaned from reading each one of these sorry little tales leaves the reader a little more scientifically literate. This is not a God Delusion-styled demolition derby, rather, an attempt to teach good science by (bad) example.

The early chapters focus on a few key ideas and thinkers. The section on homeopathy, for one, is the very model of fairness. Here he makes a plea, easy to ignore in the postmodern world: anecdotes are not enough to validate a 'cure'. Your Auntie Maureen may suddenly feel like a new woman after a course of supplements from 'Dr Gillian McKeith PhD' ('or, to give her full medical title: Gillian McKeith' as Goldacre quips) that doesn't mean it was the tablets wot did it. Does it matter if the pills and potions are just a placebo? Yes, he argues convincingly.

As if to prove that he isn't in the pocket of the medical establishment, he turns his attention to some breathtaking misuses of science by the pharmaceutical industry. Lifesaving findings are left to languish in desk drawers, wafer-thin research is puffed up, and findings are cherry-picked. Drugs are wrongly marketed or withheld, thousands die unnecessarily. Sometimes this is greed; often it's just a lack of basic statistical housekeeping.

Time and again though, the finger of blame points back to the media. The stories are legion and unpicked masterfully: the pitiful evidence against the MMR vaccine whipped up into a national scandal, the hopeless fish oil trials in Durham, the man with a garden shed lab turned into an MRSA expert, and many, many more.

Goldacre's central contention is this: The media largely consists of humanities graduates. They may be able to argue the toss about Rousseau or Goethe, but they almost glory in ignorance over the most basic principles of scientific research. Also, many of them suspect that 'It's just a bunch of people in lab coats who never agree anyway.' What's the point of scrupulous research? The specialist correspondent is sidelined in favour of a simplistic 'big story'. It matters not whether the truth may be more complex, there are papers to be sold. As a former religious journalist it all seems frighteningly familiar. 'Religious types? They never agree and it's all bunkum anyhow.' Nuance? Fact-checking? Hardly worth it.

Faith has had several family-sized portions of stuffing knocked out of it in the name of science recently. All the same, we desperately need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Goldacre: the truth may often be rather more complex and challenging then we would wish it to be. Nonetheless, as Christians, we need to be committed to it without reservation. The alternative is to be pigeonholed away with 'Professor' Gillian McKeith in perpetuity and, worse, to deserve it.

Ben Cohen