Ever since I launched the Burn The Fat blog, I promised that I would write health, fitness and nutrition book reviews. That was three and a half years ago and I haven’t written any yet. I guess that makes me a slacker. Sorry. It’s a bit ironic, being that I am such a bookworm. I read about 3 books every week, on average, in addition to piles of journal papers and articles. I have approximately 2700 books in my library (and now a kindle starting to fill up, like my bookshelves, some of which fill an entire walk-in closet). Better late than never, and I figured Bad Science would be as good a title as any to start, because it’s a perfect follow up to my last blog post, which exposed a classic example of bad science, and bad science reporting…

bad science by ben goldacre

Bad Science is a book (paperback, Harper Perennial, London) written by the witty (when not critical or sarcastic) Oxford-educated UK physician Ben Goldacre. Folks rooted in alternative health fields will most likey not be giving this one 5-stars, and some folks may not appreciate the writing style. I also suspect that not every chapter will interest every reader (I had little interest in the MMR scare info).

Overall however, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in all of the following: health, nutrition, medicine, science and truth in media reporting about science.

Readers who are familiar with Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, and with the likes of Thomas Gilovich and Michael Shermer will enjoy Bad Science. Some of the ideas may be familiar, and perhaps repetitive to readers of the aforementioned authors and their ilk, but with Goldacre being a Brit and with this book being quite biographical and chock full of both humorous and serious personal anecdotes, there’s more than enough new information and new takes on old subjects to make this worth the read (and worth the cost of shipping from Amazon.co.uk if you live in the states as I do).

In an entertaining and light-hearted tone, Goldacre takes a look at some serious misuses of science. This includes the nonsense of “nutritionists,” the craziness of quacks, the evils of pharmaceutical companies, the misreporting of statistics and the media’s mockery of science. Goldacre does a commendable job at dismantling pseudo-science in areas including ludicrous health claims about food, fantasies about pills and the incessant march to medicalize everyday life.

In the first three chapters, Goldacre handily dismantles detox, brain gym, expensive but inefficacious cosmetics and homeopathy. I particularly enjoyed his debunking of detox:

“That burgers and beer can have negative effects on your body is certainly true, for a number of reasons, but the notion that they leave a specific residue, which can be extruded by a specific process, a physiological system called detox, is a marketing invention. Like the best pseudoscientific inventions, it deliberately blends useful common sense with outlandish, medicalized fantasy… When I go through busy periods of partying, drinking, sleep deprivation and convenience eating, I usually decide – eventually – that I need a bit of rest. So I have a few nights in, reading at home, and eating more salad than usual. Models and celebrities, meanwhile, ‘detox.’”

Goldacre insists that he is not on a consumer crusade. Rather, with his inimitable style he quips, “People are free to waste their money on health and nutrition quacks. It’s a voluntary, self-administered tax on people who don’t understand science properly.” That one got a good chuckle out of me, as I’ve often told my friends and readers that buying most of the popular weight loss supplements today is like paying a stupidity tax.

In chapter 5 you are treated to as excellent a summary of the history of placebo effect as you will ever get in the span of 23 pages. You will learn, through dramatic, almost unbelievable (but true) examples, that the words and bedside manner of a physician can cure, and the power of the mind-body effect in health and healing is actually more incredible than most of the fables concocted by the quacks. The importance of understanding the power of placebo becomes clear through the rest of the book as complementary and alternative (CAM) health therapies – and even well-established surgical procedures – are scrutinized and measured against placebos.

About a quarter of the way through the book is where my interest was truly seized. This is where the good doctor began to explain the misdeeds of the nutritionists who are the go-to guys (or girls) for the media. He explains the fundamentals of good evidence-based medicine and the four key errors these media nutritionists make, including how they misunderstand and misreport research and statistics.

“Nutritionists love to quote basic laboratory science research because it makes them look as if they are actively engaged in a process of complicated, highly technical academic work. But you have to be very cautious of how you extrapolate from what happens in some cells in a dish on a laboratory bench, to the complex system of a living human being, where things can work in completely the opposite way to what laboratory work would suggest.”

In a particularly enlightening chapter, the examples of the misuse of statistics in research are nothing short of jaw dropping. If you’ve ever heard that a scientific study can be spun and presented in a way to support nearly any position or point of view, you may not realize just how true this is until after you read this.

In the next two chapters, one of which was previously unpublished due to a lawsuit (one of the quacks he exposed sued him… but lost the case in the end), Goldacre exposes the tactics of two of the most well-known nutritionists and health “experts” in the UK. I had never heard of them before, but their stories sounded so familiar, I could easily have imagined the protagonists being the household-name infomercial health and diet gurus here in the United States.

Final chapters included information about health scares blown out of proportion or almost literally invented by the media, a frank discussion about whether mainstream medicine and the pharmaceutical companies are evil and why clever people believe stupid things (spoiler: it’s largely because we tend to see patterns in randomness where there are none). And then there’s the one chapter which actually prompted me to pick up this book and read it after it sat on my shelf for so many months: How the media promotes the public misunderstanding of science.

With last week’s post about Time magazine’s “exercise won’t make you thin” article fresh in my memory (bad science at its worst), I was most interested in seeing what Dr. Goldacre had to say on these matters of mass media. As I read his opening paragraph which said, “If I am known at all, it is for dismantling foolish media stories about science,” I felt a common bond and sense of mission.

He exposed three types of media science stories: wacky stories, breakthrough stories and scare stories. He explained how the wacky stories are “nothing but space fillers, there to promote products and fill pages, with a minimum of journalistic effort,” and how many stories are scandalous promotional activity (thanks to clever PR agencies), masquerading as news.

Goldacre’s beliefs about the media go beyond a simple dissatisfaction or even anger at the way health and nutrition news is reported. He asserts that the media has a general contempt for science, portraying it as a field that’s impossibly difficult to understand, populated with arbitrarily-elected figures who do work that is overwhelmingly contradictor
y – and besides, say the media and the lay public they serve, “those scientists just keep changing their minds anyway.”

What could possibly be worse than the inaccurate, biased or incomplete reporting of research which might lead people to bad decisions, unhealthy choices or even death? Perhaps, as Goldacre suggests, it’s that science itself is being threatened because the way the media has been reporting it and portraying it promotes its misunderstanding.

That’s truly unfortunate, because in this day and age of health and nutrition charlatanism, science is the best friend we’ve got.

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