Bad Science: Getting Some Perspective from Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre & Bad Science

Anyone who has a problem with their health has probably searched for a ‘cure’ at some point during their illness. Over the years I have tried countless diet modifications, supplements, holistic and medical treatments [read my blogpost on this here]. Not much of it has worked, despite the ‘expert advice’ that initially seduced me. So much information about health is limited or conflicting. How can you seperate the wheat from the chaff? It isnt easy: every day there are new reports of health ‘breakthroughs’, scientific studies and health advice. It feels impossible to tell who is right.

Doctor and epidemiologist Ben Goldacre has made it his mission to ‘unpick dodgy scientific claims made by scaremongering journalists, dubious government reports, pharmaceutical corporations, PR companies and quacks.’ His first book Bad Science was a revelation to me. It gave me a new way of evaluating information about about health and made me realise that the way most information is ‘spun’ by the media renders it pretty much meaningless. It also bolstered my developing skepticism of self declared ‘experts’ – such as the homeopath who told me my colitis was probably related to my smoking dope as a student (that’s me and half the student population then) and naturopath who declared eating tofu was akin to ‘putting cancer in your body.’ Obviously, these people were quacks, but that didn’t stop them charging for their services and making bold claims about the efficacy of their treatments. Goldacre questions the science behind the claims of homeopathy, amongst others, in Bad Science. I found it useful to have this kind of healthy skepticism in my armoury. As a sufferer of chronic illness, I was vulnerable to bold claims because I so wanted to believe that there was something that would make me well. There isn’t a cure, but some things certainly make me feel better, and I now use holistic therapies as a means of relaxation and wellbeing, not a ‘cure’.

Since my colitis escalated to the realms of ‘serious’ the specialists treating me have been much more open about the limits of their understanding about the drugs they use. When my hospital doctor offered me a new drug for transplant patients to stop me ‘rejecting’ my colon, he was open with me about the limits of the available research into the drugs: they might not work and the side affects could be awful – I opted for surgery. In turn, when I found some studies to support the efficacy of a probiotic in the treatment of flareups for post-op patients, my surgeon was clear: the negative studies into the probiotic were not published, so what I was reading was not the whole picture. However, despite this refreshing honesty, I have also sat in my GP’s surgery, as so many of us have, while she looked up drugs online and took educated guesses about what treatment to offer me. She was doing a good job but couldn’t possibly evaluate all the evidence for all the drugs available to her – and even if she could, would the evidence be clear, do the studies show the whole picture? Possibly not. Goldacre’s new book Bad Pharma shines a light on world of the drug companies: ‘Doctors and patients need good scientific evidence to make informed decisions. But instead, companies run bad trials on their own drugs, which distort and exaggerate the benefits by design. When these trials produce unflattering results, the data is simply buried. All of this is perfectly legal. In fact, even government regulators withhold vitally important data from the people who need it most. Doctors and patient groups have stood by too, and failed to protect us. Instead, they take money and favours, in a world so fractured that medics and nurses are now educated by the drugs industry.’  I haven’t actually read it yet –  I’m a bit worried about what I will find!

For a very quick ‘speed date’ version of his books, Goldacre’s TED talks are great. In Battling Bad Science he highlights some hilarious and glaring inconsistencies in the media, such as the Daily Mail’s proclamations that coffee both protects against and causes cancer, not to mention the conflicting properties of red wine… In Goldacre’s own words, “If you’re a journalist who misrepresents science for the sake of a headline, a politician more interested in spin than evidence, or an advertiser who loves pictures of molecules in little white coats, then beware: your days are numbered.” His What Doctors Dont Know About The Drugs They Prescribe talk pretty much does what it says on the tin.

Ben Goldacre is on Twitter @bengoldacre

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