Thursday, 19 November 2009

Book review: Bad Science - Ben Goldacre

I'm going to save you the trouble of scrolling to the bottom of this review and urge you to buy this book. Go now, it's absolutely fantastic in every way and should be read by everyone. Once you've come back, you can read this review in full in anticipation of what to expect when you open it up. Done? Good.

Ben Goldacre is a doctor probably best known for his 'bad science' column in the guardian on a saturday. Due to the clash of names you would be forgiven for thinking that the book was just a collection of those columns. This is very much not the case. What Dr Goldacre instead attempts is to educate the reader about the scientific process, through examples of times when it's not followed.

What you experience as a result is a challenging, engrossing. shocking and depressing in equal measure. The delight and wonder that you find the placebo chapter is soon frittered away as you learn about frauds and quacks that have made untold millions. First it's humourous to see these characters cut down to size, then slowly the human cost is revealed. Goldacre's revelations about the AIDS crisis in South Africa left me feeling both angry and hurt.

It gets worse, not in quality but definitely in effect. The importance of science in the world is regularly overlooked and it's having your attention drawn to just how overlooked, and just how devastating the consequences can be is chilling. The books close only seeks to illustrate this with depressing effect.

Of course, while 'Bad Science' can often be depressing, it's for the content, rather than the quality or style of writing. Indeed Ben Goldacre is often highly witty, with some genuinely laugh-out-loud funny passages. This a book that seeks to entertain through information, and that it does with genuine aplomb. Most people that read this book will learn an awful lot, and occasionally it is necessary to re-read elements of the book to ensure that the point is got. This again is not a failing, like the wonderful 'Short history of nearly everything' by Bill Bryson, the scope is ambitious, squeezing a magnificent amount into just shy of 350 pages (not including references).

For those that won't find any new concepts, this book will still both shock and entertain and for everyone else, the challenge of learning is definitely worth it for the feeling of accomplishment you receive at the end. Absolutely necessary for anyone that cares about the world, medicine or science.

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