Nice review of my book in the British Medical Journal by Richard Smith

October 7th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in book, book reviews, onanism | 22 Comments »

Reproduced cheekily below. He’s Arthur Smith‘s brother, don’t you know.

Published 1 October 2008, doi:10.1136/bmj.a1856
www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/337/oct01_3/a1856
Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1856

Views & Reviews

Review of the Week

Becoming Ben

Richard Smith, director, Ovations Chronic Disease Initiative

richardswsmith@yahoo.co.uk

Ben Goldacre’s book assembles an impressive array of villains who deal in bad science, finds Richard Smith

We’re lucky to have Ben Goldacre, and maybe as a result of his book we’ll have more people like him. He is fighting what sometimes seems like a one man battle against a tide of pseudoscience and an army of quacks. His main weapons are his weekly column in the Guardian newspaper, an impressive website (www.badscience.net), and now this book, which aims “to teach good science by examining the bad.”

Luckily Goldacre, a practising doctor, has all that’s needed for the battle: a solid understanding of epidemiology, statistics, and public health; a fluid, engaging way of writing, although with a weakness for bad jokes; a gift for using the web effectively; a taste for glory; a thick skin; good lawyers; and seemingly boundless energy (he tells us in passing about his childhood hyperactivity).

The good lawyers are necessary because Goldacre is regularly threatened with libel actions and even violence. He and the Guardian have just had a major triumph in beating off the legal threats of Matthias Rath, a doctor who has condemned antiretrovirals for HIV and promoted his own nutritional supplements as the right treatment (BMJ 2008;337:a1710, doi:10.1136/bmj.a1710). It seems that Dr Rath has made millions from his treatments and dubious claims and had the money to sue the Guardian. It’s one of many indictments of the English libel system that whoever has the most money will usually win. The Guardian’s victory is important for health, science, and journalism and—annoyingly for Rath—will help promote Goldacre’s book. And now that the legal threat has lifted he has also promised a book on Rath.

Bad Science is in many ways a primer on using egregious claims and media stories as the raw material for assessing evidence. The book is aimed at the public, and many BMJ readers will know the basics—but everybody will learn something. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on “Why clever people believe stupid things.” Underestimating the power of chance, we see patterns where none exist and causal relationships where there are none. We overvalue evidence that confirms our hypotheses; and instead of searching, like true scientists, for information that will destroy our hypotheses we look for evidence that will confirm them.

Although repeatedly writing that he blames the system not individuals for the huge volumes of bad science put out by cosmetics firms, nutritionists, homoeopaths, drug companies, and others, Goldacre assembles an impressive collection of villains. BMJ readers will, I think, enjoy reading accounts of these people, many of them with fake qualifications, who make fortunes by using the jargon, graphs, and formulas of science to sell simple and ineffective treatments for complex problems. Most of these people, unlike most doctors, are adept at using the media, and Goldacre admits to admiring their skills and chutzpah.

It is an irony, therefore, that he directs most of his ire against the media. “The blame” for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) debacle lies with the “hundreds of journalists, columnists, editors and executives who drove this story cynically, irrationally and wilfully onto the front pages for nine years.” He sneers unattractively at “humanities graduates [who run the media] with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour.” To Goldacre “humanities graduate” is an insult, which seems silly when his broad mission is to encourage deeper understanding of complex issues.

The MMR story is told completely and well, and the media have undoubtedly driven the story in a wholly unreasonable way. But we get the media we deserve, and I think it’s a mistake—made time and time again by desperate politicians—to blame the media. The problem lies deeper, as Goldacre himself observes elsewhere.

“Science,” he writes, “is our dominant explanatory for the natural and moral world.” Those who seek to influence us—whether politicians, health authorities, journalists, fraudsters, or business people—will turn to science. But science is complex and is becoming more so, and most of the population is scientifically illiterate. Our basic human failings—of irrationality, greed, arrogance, laziness, criminality, and so on—become mixed up with science. “Much of the nonsense in bad science . . . isn’t something done to us,” writes Goldacre, “[rather] it’s a cultural product . . . We do it to ourselves.”

And there’s nothing new about bad science. As long as there has been science there has been bad science. This is made very clear, for example, in the history of vaccination. I worried when I started reading this book that its author might be in pursuit of a Utopia where bad science was abolished. But quite the opposite: not only does he recognise the hopelessness of trying to eradicate it, he is having huge fun countering it. Without it he might be lost.

He thus stays away from simple solutions, but he does urge better teaching of uses of evidence in schools—and I can see his book and free blogs being used to create learning sessions that would be great fun. This would apply equally in medical schools, where the teaching of epidemiology and statistics is often horribly dull. Goldacre is scornful of “the indulgent and well financed ‘public engagement of science’ community,” but he urges those who understand evidence to start blogs. In the world of web 2.0, scientists can grab attention just as well as those who spread bad science. You too can become a Ben Goldacre.

Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1856

Bad Science
Ben Goldacre
Fourth Estate, £12.99, pp 338
ISBN: 9780007240197
Rating: ***

Richard Smith is a former editor of the BMJ, for which Ben Goldacre also writes

I should also say that Richard Smith’s book The Trouble With Medical Journals is an extremely good run through medical fraud, pharmaceutical industry ghost-writers, and heinous publication bias, and I keep meaning to hassle him in for a podcast. Which I’m about to start posting by the way. I’ve got a few now. Seriously.


++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

22 Responses



  1. kim said,

    October 7, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Well, I’m glad Smith defends humanities graduates. As a humanities graduate myself, and as a long-time reader of The Guardian column and frequent visitor to this site, I feel a bit miffed that we should all be tarred with the same brush.

    In any case, I’ve met plenty of science graduates who use homoeopathy/read their horoscopes/believe in God, so I don’t think that humanities graduates have a monopoly on irrational thinking.

  2. dirkgently said,

    October 7, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Just looked up your book on amazon.co.uk to add to my wishlist and it seems that someone is missing the point:

    Under ‘Other customers suggested these items’ they’ve got 3 Gillian McKeith books that have been ‘Suggested by 1 customer’…

  3. Dudley said,

    October 7, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    dirkgently -

    That would be me. And unless Amazon have removed ‘em, there are links to Ben’s book under Professor McKeith’s best sellers. Putting the recommendations both ways increases the chances (I’m told) of Ben’s book being recommended directly to McKeith’s customers.

    Oh, and I’m surprised Ben’s not more upset that the BMJ is accusing him of beating Matthias Rath off.

  4. DrJon said,

    October 7, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    If Rath and his followers backed you into a corner, would you try to beat them all off? (copyright Chris Morris)

  5. deeperwell42 said,

    October 7, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    Congratulations to you, Ben, can’t wait to read the book.

    As a longtime Bad Science follower, English Lit student and science enthusiast, I have to agree with kim – every time you have a rant against humanities graduates, a part of me dies in the knowledge that someone I admire so greatly apparently considers my life’s pursuit an utter waste of time. Yes, yes, I know you’re referring to clueless media people “wear[ing] their ignorance as a badge of honour” – but would it hurt you to make that a little clearer?

  6. dok said,

    October 8, 2008 at 12:38 am

    SubMoron, if you’re “yet to meet a science graduate who’s glad he or she knows nothing of Plato, Pindar or Selden,” then I envy you for your social circle. Sadly, I have observed a modern trend amongst science graduates for aggressively narrow cultural boundaries, refusing to engage with a wider society. Call them the Illiterati or call them the radical geeks, but there is a growing subculture that will not look much beyond anime and George Lucas films, and it is no less disrespectful towards the arts and humanities than those who proudly proclaim their innumeracy are towards the sciences.

  7. Munin said,

    October 8, 2008 at 7:22 am

    Speaking of bad jokes, what did the fish say when it swam into a wall?

    Dam.

  8. David Colquhoun said,

    October 8, 2008 at 7:53 am

    In defence of Ben, I think it is pretty obvious that he isn’t talking about all arts graduates but just those who not only wear their ignorance as a badge of honour, but also insist on foisting bad science on the public. This must be a rather small subset of all arts graduates.

    I must also agree with Dok that there is “trend amongst science graduates for aggressively narrow cultural boundaries”. In fact I’d go a bit further. The audit culture has encouraged a breed of scientists who not only have never read Middlemarch, but who can be pretty cavalier about science itself -never mind the understanding the maths, just work the system and publish lots of papers. That is what happens when you have a system that rewards triviality and headline-seeking.

  9. csrster said,

    October 8, 2008 at 8:05 am

    Mary Beard recently admitted to not having read Middlemarch (
    link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1529569286/bclid1586429850/bctid1681848733 ) so they wouldn’t be in such bad company.

    I actually _have_ read Middlemarch, but for some reason I didn’t seem to “get it”. I just couldn’t see why it was considered interesting or important or one of the most significant novels in English literary history. I’m not sure if that makes me one of the illiterati or not.

  10. David Colquhoun said,

    October 8, 2008 at 10:31 am

    csrster. May I suggest that you try Rosemary Ashton’s biography of George Henry Lewes. He was the man with whom George Eliot lived, a remarkable polymath, radical, freethinker and a founder member of the Physiological Society. There is little doubt that he influenced greatly the modern scientific thinking and anti-quackery ideas of Lydgate.

  11. gadgeezer said,

    October 8, 2008 at 11:08 am

    David Colquhoun wrote:

    In defence of Ben, I think it is pretty obvious that he isn’t talking about all arts graduates but just those who not only wear their ignorance as a badge of honour, but also insist on foisting bad science on the public.

    I don’t think it is that clear; in the book it is sometimes used in an unqualified and unnuanced way that is both sneering and unattractive and, from the number of time it comes up in discussion now the book is published, it distracts from the main message.

    Toenex wrote:

    Humanities graduates aren’t the problem. It’s the disproportionate number of them who end up feeding information to the public that is.

    After Nick Davies’ arguments in Flat Earth News, I’m not clear that the responsibility does lie wholly with ‘humanities graduates who run the media’ unless that is code for ‘people who run industries that employ successful advertising and PR companies to promote their message and they do this via mainstream media all the while undermining interest in anything but soundbite journalism so readers, TV viewers etc. are indifferent to the quality of science or health journalism’. Added to which, there is a roll of shame of TV doctors who effectively front for companies whose products they endorse even when this undermines the public understanding of science – are they secretly humanities graduates?

  12. gadgeezer said,

    October 8, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    I listed medical doctors – who may or may not have PhDs.

    We know that you can find humanities or arts graduates who don’t fulfil Ben’s stereotype but that is after interpretation and ignoring some of what he wrote.

    Are you saying that Davies is mistaken about the power of advertisers?

    Could it be that some people are being faux-naif about abrasiveness as a badge of honour?

  13. outeast said,

    October 8, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    Long-term readers of Bad Science (and the comments threads, where Ben has repeatedly responded to this criticism) should know that the humanities graduate ‘slur’ is something of a standing joke.

    OK, if you’re new to Ben’s writing that may not come across – but he’s a bit of a geek, and geeks like in-jokes. It goes with the territory.

    As it happens, I’m another humanities graduate myself – and having been raised in pretty thoroughly anti-science background, I once fit the description pretty well. I was never in a position of influence, thank the gods, but I can certainly recognize the truth that lies at the heart of the jibe.

  14. pv said,

    October 8, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Added to which, there is a roll of shame of TV doctors who effectively front for companies whose products they endorse even when this undermines the public understanding of science – are they secretly humanities graduates?

    gadgeezer don’t you think that’s a bit beside the point? There are crooks and charlatans from all walks of life, and some of them might volunteer for a bit of tv exposure to promote their particular scam. But the people who choose who goes on mainstream tv or radio, who get’s interviewed, who gets a show and who doesn’t… these are exclusively the folks who commission the programmes, who are in thrall to audience ratings and who decide what goes out every day as entertainment, news or whatever. It’s a very arrogant, narrow-minded business, with no interest in anything other than bums on seats and ratings. Certainly no interest in science, never mind any knowledge of it, except insofar as sciency “clothes” (dialogue, terminology etc) are useful (like science fiction) to entertain or scare the viewer. Honesty and unbiased information are never on the agenda when it comes to the promotion of quackery.
    The media industry just so happens to run and largely populated by humanities graduates, and I think it’s just little disingenuous to insist that it has no bearing on the matter.

  15. peterd102 said,

    October 9, 2008 at 1:50 am

    What exactly is defined as the feild of ‘Humanities’ anyway? At secondary school it seems hard to disentangle. There was History and Geography in there which have a decent basis in science, and do seems to be more about thinking scientifically – considering evidience,and this was done much more frequently than in science lessons themselves.

    My personal target is English Literature, which seems like a pointless subject (at the time of writing, feel free to object in my blog – peterd102.wordpress.com/2008/10/09/eng-lit/
    ).

  16. mikewhit said,

    October 9, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    @SubMoron:
    Presumably that’s “Mendel, Maxwell and Mendeleyev” (МЕНДЕЛЕЕВ)?

  17. kim said,

    October 10, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    Well, the point of studying English literature as I see it is to discover that not everyone else sees the world in the same way you do. Given that none of us is ever going to be able to travel everywhere in the world, and certainly not back in time, it’s probably the best way there is of finding out that other people’s experiences, values and ways of life are different from our own.

    It is also, incidentally, a very good way of understanding techniques of persuasion – how a writer uses a particular technique to make you think about something in a certain light. The ability to understand this use of language is particularly helpful in enabling you to think critically about things like adverts, newspaper articles and politicians’ speeches.

    I think the greatest benefit is that it makes you realise that your own experiences and views are necessarily partial, and coloured by the time and place you live in. In fact, if I may be so bold, this is exactly where many science graduates go wrong. They find it very easy to see things in black-and-white rather than in their full complexity. In my experience, anyway…

  18. pv said,

    October 10, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    In fact, if I may be so bold, this is exactly where many science graduates go wrong. They find it very easy to see things in black-and-white rather than in their full complexity. In my experience, anyway…

    That seems to me like a view of a view of a view. A misunderstanding or generalisation of what view scientists are likely to take based on a misunderstanding of what science is. In fact I’d say, on the contrary, I’d be surprised if it’s the view of many scientists at all in reality.
    Basically there are some (many) aspects of the physical world that just can’t be understood or appreciated without some knowledge of science. Feynman claimed that it was impossible to understand the physical world other than very superficially without a deep knowledge mathematics.
    He also said there is a beauty to be appreciated at levels smaller than 1 centimetre.
    The fundamental point of these two assertions was that while he, as a scientist, could appreciate the beauty observed by an artist at the larger level, he could also appreciate the beauty to be found in the structures of things at the microscopic level and smaller. This is quite contrary to the humanities’ or arts’ view that scientists only see things in black and white. In fact I would go further and say that the beauty available to scientists for appreciation is denied to those who scorn the sciences. And it goes some way to explaining why most science journalism is so ridiculous and crappy.

  19. Robert Carnegie said,

    October 13, 2008 at 3:26 am

    Does a family interest in BBC Radio’s [Loose Ends] need to be declared?

    [Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen] has Arthur mentioning his brother – joining the dots here makes it difficult not to tread on one of Arthur’s jokes by doing so – but he says at the end on the BBC recording that the show is “all lies” up to and including Barry Cryer being an actual person.

    It’s a pretty good show and probably will be repeated on BBC 7 a lot more times, usually by [The Comedy Controller] of the week or equivalent Saturday slot-filler of three hours, this being one hour.

  20. daveg@i.am said,

    October 29, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Kim said:
    Well, the point of studying English literature as I see it is to discover that not everyone else sees the world in the same way you do.

    Yes, of course but have you ever noticed how many (classic/ canon) novels have scientist heroes?
    How many have journalists/writers/artists?

    I can think of the French lieutenant’s woman whose hero is a geologist.

    I think Ben is exactly right – there are people in positions where they decide what is printed/ broadcast and what not who are ignorant of basic science and not ashamed of it, and do wear it as a kind of badge. And there is an asymmetry because the equivalent people on the science qualified side are open to & in my acquaintances usually active in the arts.

    In my case I am a science graduate, I also studied statistics and have written poetry since my teens. I have published and run writing groups, helped organize literary festivals…

    An incredible illustration of this to me was a poem which oi wrote which had the the word transfusion in it. It was ridiculed for being a cold, scientific word out of place for a love poem.

    It is a long way to go to get this problem fixed…

    But we really need to do it.

    DaveG

  21. ritapal said,

    October 30, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Good grief, I didn’t know Dr Richard Smith was still alive.

    Actually, if Richard ever reads this forum, I ought to ask him why he backed Andrew Wakefield in the BMJ :)!

    Richard Smith and I often had long running debates on the BMJ. One such debate had Richard Smith degrading the use of the internet :). That was in 2001. Times have changed of course and Richard now gives speeches to the MJA about how useful the internet:).

    The BMJ though these days supports concept of flouride in water being the reason for health teeth in the Midlands. This junk theory was propagated by Prof Rod Griffiths [ Tooth and Nail BMJ 2007]. The Guardian subsequently reported it www.guardian.co.uk/society/2007/oct/05/health.politics. It potrayed Griffiths as follows “In a comment piece in the journal, Rod Griffiths, regional director of public health for the West Midlands, credits 40 years of fluoridation for the excellent teeth of the people of Birmingham, in spite of their poor record on obesity and heart disease”

    1. Rod Griffiths retired from that position long nefore 2007
    2. Griffiths makes these rash statements but actually there is no evidence either way.
    3. Despite misleading the public, not only in the above case but in the issues during the now discreited Griffiths Review. Griffiths remains untouchable.

    In documents related to me, Griffiths admitted that the
    ” cardiac arrest team should have a drip set”. He essentially stated there was no requirement for any ward in the NHS to carry drip sets. The Trust FOI requests stated that it was “expected” that each ward carried drip sets.

    Griffiths has made bizarre statements that have no basis in science. He still continues in high positions within the DOH.

    Dr Rita Pal
    www.ward87.blogspot.com

    Declared Conflict.
    Formal Complaint to the GMC regarding Professor Griffiths. Despite admissions by the GMC that Griffiths had misguided an audit report into the care on Ward 87, the complaint was screened out. It is though currently being reconsidered. www.nhsexposed.com/healthworkers/doctors/gmc/gmc-in-the-dock.shtml

  22. BenHemmens said,

    April 30, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Since I’m here now I must praise your book, which was a very fine read. I gave my wife, no not the book, but a boxed set of David Attenborough DVDs for Christmas. At some point she then picked up the admirable Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky, and a biography of Darwin by some German bloke, so we got onto a bit of a popular science jag. And since she is plagued by colleagues who are into homeopathy and hire pet communicators etc., she was a pushover for bad science.

    And now here’s the punchline, you nasty little man: she’s a humanities graduate. Sooner or later you will have to eat that sentence.

    I for my part am a somewhat dropped-out ex enzymologist now working as a technical translator.

    Oha and there’s one other thing I noticed in your book. You said there was no such thing as a medical textbook on “Detoxification”. Well, strictly speaking you would be right: perhaps not a MEDICAL textbook. But if you ever strayed into the field of biochemical toxicology, you would find the word in chapter or section titles, probybly whole books as well. P450s? alcohol DHs? urea? GSTs? Ring a bell?

You must be logged in to post a comment.