Having been laid up for the last few days with a nasty stomach upset I've been catching up on a bit of reading, and finally finished Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. As it says on the cover, this is probably "the most important book you'll read this year", and that's if, like me, you're a scientist. If you're one of those weedy, innumerate humanities types it is probably the most important book you'll read this decade. Your life will never be the same again!
In the book Goldacre takes the lid off the way in which quacks, Big Pharma and journalists mislead and misinform (deliberately or otherwise) in order to sell their product to the gullible public who have no understanding of the scientific method or how to analyse, interpret and present data meaningfully. Inter alia he digs the dirt on cosmetics, nutritionists, drug testing and the MMR vaccine scare, examining the way in which the data are misrepresented, misunderstood and outright fiddled. Goldacre is a practising doctor as well as writing the Bad Science column (and blog) in the Guardian, so he knows whereof he speaks.
You'll get scared when I say he shows how we all misunderstand risk and the way it is presented, but don't be! The book isn't technical, there's no nasty maths and lots of explanations and real life examples. And only a small part of the book is about risk and statistics, although it is a recurrent theme. You don't need any maths beyond the ability to do simple arithmetic. Not only does Goldacre know his stuff he writes in a light readable style which keeps you engaged, incredulous and turning the pages. Some of it is truly fascinating; some truly horrifying.
If there is one important thing to take from this book it is the way in which risk is not understood and is misrepresented – by most of us and by the media. Indeed it is so important I'll run through it here using a simple example I've just made up.
BMX Jab Doubles Wobbly Cancer – Mothers Demand Ban says the tabloid headline. Maybe the BMX vaccine does double the risk of Wobbly Cancer, but what does this really mean? And are the mothers right to demand a ban? BMX protects children against Cox-Strokers Disease, a nasty infectious illness which leaves 10% of those infected (boys and girls) either blind or infertile or both. That's 1 in 10 of those who get the disease become blind and/or infertile, so for 1000 cases there are 100 children with their lives ruined. Cox-Strokers is endemic in this country with thousands of cases a year and the government insists every child is vaccinated before they start pre-school. But mothers want the vaccine banned because the preventative vaccine puts their kids at double the risk of Wobbly Cancer. Should they worry? How much Wobbly Cancer is there? The data show that the likelihood of any child getting Wobbly Cancer is 1 in 100,000 per year. BMX doubles that rate so for every 100,000 vaccinated children there would be 2 cases of cancer each year – or one extra case (remember there is one anyway!). But if we don't vaccinate the kids for every 100,000 there will be 10,000 (or 1 in 10) cases of blindness and/or infertility. Now you decide which risk you'd choose for your child – and whether the tabloids are scaremongering!
Even as a scientist I hadn't fully appreciated the significance of how risk was being (mis-)presented – and I'm supposed to know! One thing this book has done for me is to stop me reading health and science articles in the mainstream media unless from a reputable science-qualified writer. Better to keep up with science through blogs written by scientists who do understand and can correctly interpret what data and risk mean.
You really should read this book!