If you look over the list of links on this site there is one that pretty much sticks out as being the only non-palaeontolgoy website on there and that is the imperious ‘bad science’. However, as I have barely mentioned it at all in the past, and the author Dr Ben Goldacre (a medical doctor and lecturer) now has a book out of the same title that I have just finished reading, there was never a better opportunity. The site (and newspaper column and book for that matter) are pretty much unique on the web in that they tackle science communication, and the media especially, head-on. So that’s an actual, real, practicing scientist, writing in a national newspaper, and primarily complaining about the poor way in which the media treats scientists. It really is a very pleasant concept indeed.
Both his website and columns in the Guardian deal with a mixture of media savaging and addressing bad science at its core – poor research papers. It appears that the medical community have to put up with far worse than the rest of us when it comes to poor research being published, with all kinds of issues over reviews and referees before we even start on the drugs companies and questions of ethics and controls in human experimentation. Of course the issues are so much more important when two extra factors have to be taken into consideration, the first is that fully half or more of all media reports on science are about health (so it gets far more attention than other fields) and secondly that of course the people at the front line of this (practicing doctors) do not have the time to wade through all the new papers and research and much of their training is well away from this kind of core academia, making them more vulnerable to poor science as they may not pick it up. The front end of both of these problems is lives – manipulate the results of a drug test and tens of thousands of people will be taking a drug that has a serious side effect and will ultimately kill people. I’m incredibly glad I’m not in the field of medicine.
So onto the book itself.
It is a combination of old columns and new material, but all rewritten as a continuum and not just a random collection of old things cobbled together. It is smartly written, funny (if you like British sarcasm), and does not talk down to the audience and does explain tricky things well. Each chapter deals with a major issue in medical science and science reporting and while there is a decidedly British flavour to those under attack (especially named ‘celebrities’ of the pseudo-science brigade) the themes are universal – homeopathy, quacks, big pharma, media reporting, bad practices, and public credulity (and he seems to have a special place in hell reserved for ‘nutritionists’). Goldacre rarely attacks individuals, but instead the culture and practice that allows the unskilled, ignorant and downright fraudulent to take advantage and make money while risking the health of others.
It is a compelling book and I rushed through it eagerly. There is much in there I did not know about medicine (hardly my forte) and it opened my eyes to a lot about how drugs are tested and marketed amongst other things. There is however much to learn about science in general as well, with all kinds of little nuggets of information about trials and controls that are an excellent source of ideas. My research rarely requires such statistical analyses and I’ve never had to delve into these depths, but this taught me new things to look out for in papers (good and bad – everyone makes mistakes) and ideas for the future.
One area that I want to focus on further is the role of the media in the whole science communication malarkey, something obviously close to my heart. In the past I have been criticised for going after the media (not that they have noticed) for their attempts at reporting on palaeontology with my reaction of a mixture of anger, incredulousness, disbelief and, only occasionally, humour. I have been angered with monotonous regularity at the nonsense I get to read in reports of research, but believe it or not this has typically been tempered somewhat by the sympathy I have had for people trying to do a job under pressure and lacking in time, and of course my own general ignorance of how the media works (despite the work I have done for various branches at times). This book however has really opened the subject up for me since of course the author is an actual journalist himself (to a degree) and does plenty of media work for the TV, radio and other outlets. He knows what goes on, how it works and who does what, when and why.
Now that I actually have some knowledge from a scientist’s perspective, and one on the inside at that, all I can really say is that anything bad I have said about the media’s inability to communicate the science correctly was laughably lightweight. I should have been far, far more direct and angry. (Just what I need, eh?). Goldacre levels some accusations at the mainstream media (and let’s not forget just how well regulated this is in the UK compared to many other countries) that I have only hinted at in the past with no real knowledge to back up my thoughts, but obviously are ongoing and real:
1. Deliberate overdramatisation (scare stories essentially)
2. A lack of understanding of basic concepts that verges on distortion of facts
3. Blind acceptance of any opinion as valid even from those who are demonstrably unqualified to give it
4. A lack of responsibility or retractions when problems with reports are uncovered
5. A perception by the media that science is effectively transient and wilfully misleading.
Many examples of these kinds of problems are cited and even documented in detail in places (most notably the MMR scare and MRSA debacle). Not only is the science wilfully distorted for a good story, but the scientists are then attacked or smeared when they attempt to counter the bad information with the real science. Nice. These are not mistakes or errors, these are deliberate changes made to make a story ‘better’ that when confronted are simply brushed aside or blamed on someone else like a petulant child. All I can really say is read the damn book if this seems harsh or even incredible. Once you are presented with the facts, it is very hard to put a sympathetic twist on what can only be systematic and deliberate misrepresentation of reality in exchange for a story, and again the real cost of this are human lives.
OK, getting wildly outraged over the difference between a dinosaur and a pterosaur is my personal perview, but I think that it *is* symptomatic of the problems highlighted in this book. A fundamental lack of respect for science and scientists from the media, and this of course then goes hand in hand with a lack of care or even interest over getting details right and making sure reports are accurate. This needs regulation, serious regulation, and soon. It is simply unacceptable (and frankly frightening) that this can be done with science of all subjects, and the effects as laid out in print are both real and important. It is hard not to get carried away reading this kind of information (and as you might have guessed, writing about it too) as it just seems too implausible but sadly it’s true.
I’ll try and wrap this up here, but in short this really is essential reading: if you are a scientist there are still things to learn about science, if you are an educator or tied to the media it is imperious on how to get things right, if you are a sceptic the destruction of ‘alternative medicine’ is devastating, and if you are an ordinary member of the public this is an excellent guide to navigating the pitfalls of advertising and the media. Science does not have all the answers, but it is the only way to get them, and evidence is everything.
Now go and read the book.