Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

skattejakt-25I purchased Bad Science a while back (quite possibly as much as four years back) with the intention of reading it immediately. For some reason or another that didn’t happen, and it’s been hanging around on the shelf ever since. Now that I finally got around to it I’m very glad I did, and a little annoyed that I didn’t before.

Quite frankly, it’s brilliant. It should be mandatory reading, probably, as it would innoculate (ironically) most sensible people against falling for the more glaring whackery – and some of the not-so-glaring, too.

Goldacre has written what amounts to a textbook on scientific method, explaining by example how tests are supposed to work and how they quite frequently are mangled beyond belief. He also explains why important, but unspectacular results are frequently not published (that a given drug doesn NOT work is important, but it’s hardly exciting). And he teaches you how to tell a good science story in the news from a meaningless one (clue: the way numbers are reported, whether it seems to provide an easy solution to a complex problem and whether sources are referenced so that you could go and check them if you felt like it). Along the way he demonstrates that the human mind is mind-bogglingly strange (why clever people believe stupid things) and that its relationship with the body is even stranger (placebo).

I sure wish I could have read something like this when I was fifteen or so, it would have saved me reading about all the various religious and ‘New Age’ solutions to how the world works and wondering if there was something in it. I never really believed it, but I sure tried hard to convince myself about a few things, mostly religion. In the meantime I somehow grew up and decided I no longer needed a grand answer to life, the universe and everything (or rather a grand question, as we know the answer is in fact 42), and now I can smile in recognition at Goldacre’s waxing lyrical about photosyntesis and how our lungs work:

Like most things in the story the natural sciences can tell about the world, it’s all so beautiful, so gracefully simple, yet so rewardingly complex, so neatly connected – not to mention true –that I can’t even begin to imagine why anyone would ever want to believe some New Age ‘alternative’ nonsense instead. I would go so far as to say that even if we are all under the control of a benevolent God, and the whole of reality turns out to be down to some flaky spiritual ‘energy’ that only alternative therapists can truly harness, that’s still neither so interesting nor so graceful as the most basic stuff I was taught at school about how plants work.

(p. 117. This in response to various ‘alternative’ claims about things that will ‘really oxygenate your blood’ and such.)

Which isn’t to say I nodded in recognition to everything in this book, because it also told me a lot of stuff that I only vaguely knew or that was news to me. The bit about the placebo effect, for example, is fascinating. I mean, the placebo effect is fascinating, did you know it even works on animals? I need to read more about it! Also, the sections on how to read statistics were very helpful. I sort of want to do a statistics course at some point, because not getting things like ‘correcting for cluserting’ annoys me. Even if Ben Goldacre describes it this way:

This is done with clever maths which makes everyone’s head hurt.

(p. 265)

All in all, heartily recommended!

Postscript: Other sections are not so much illuminating as infuriating. I read the chapter on Matthias Rath – The doctor will sue you now – just before bedtime, and it made me so angry I could hardly sleep. A short summary (though it will probably make you angry, too, apologies for that): Rath, not satisfied with selling ‘alternative’ cures to stupid Europeans who ought to know better because they have access to education and information, has taken his ‘cures’ to South Africa and managed to worm his way in to the already disasterous government mindset that HIV is some sort of conspiracy cooked up by the west, that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and besides the drugs are really poison meant to kill off all Africans. Better spend the money on Rath’s wonder cures. Selling snake-oil to the victims of the HIV epidemic is simply criminal and Rath, from what I can tell, ought to be brought before the International Court of Justice in Haag.

Smakebit på søndag: Bad Science

Nå er det lenge siden jeg sist serverte en smakebit, men her er i alle fall et lite utdrag fra Ben Goldacres Bad Science.

skattejakt-25En del av Goldacres prosjekt er å forklare vitenskapsteori med eksempler fra det vi leser om i media – særlig medisin, både alternativ og etablert – for å gi leseren verktøy til å plukke fra hverandre dårlig vitenskap og dermed unngå å bli lurt. Følgende eksempel kommer fra ganske tidlig i boka og omhandler fuktighetskremer, der Goldacres poeng er at det faktisk er veldig få ting som egentlig hjelper huden bli hydrert og disse er såpass generelt kjent at selv den billigste fuktighetskremen inneholder alt du trenger. Det produsentene gjør for å kunne ta mer penger for produktet sitt eller kapre markedsandeler er å hive inn alle mulige merkelige ingredienser i et vagt håp om at de vil virke og pakke det hele inn i en kvasivitenskapelig sjargong.

(…) on any trip to the chemist (I recommend it) you can find a phenomenal array of magic ingredients on the market. Valmont Cellular DNA Complex is made from ‘specially treated salmon roe DNA’ (‘Unfortunately, smearing salmon on your face won’t have quite the same effect,’ said The Times in their review), but it’s spectacularly unlikely that DNA – a very large molecule indeed – would be absorbed by your skin, or indeed be any use for the synthetic activity happening in it, even if it was. You’re probably not short of the building blocks of DNA in your body. There’s a hell of a lot of it in there already.

Thinking it through, if salmon DNA was absorbed whole by your skin, then you would be absorbing alien, or rather fish, design blueprints into your cells – that is, the instructions for making fish cells, which might not be helpful for you as a human.

(s. 24) Her må man jo få lov til å påpeke at Goldacres innvendinger er så opplagte – hvordan skulle lakse-DNA kunne hjelpe huden min? – at vi må konkludere med at journalisten i The Times enten bare skrev av pressemeldingen fra produsenten uten overhode å absorbere informasjonen eller virkelig ikke har noen anelse om hva DNA er, bare at det høres vitenskapelig og flott ut.

Og nettopp medias framstilling av vitenskap, enten det er seriøs forskning eller kvasivitenskap fra kvakksalvere og andre som hovedsakelig er ute etter å tjene penger, er en av Goldacres ‘pet peeves’ som det heter på nynorsk. Og hvis du virkelig skjønner det han skriver blir det fort en av dine også, om det ikke var det fra før.

Her føles det passende å lenke til en kronikk i Aftenposten i går av Sunniva Rose: Skremmende at det er «greit» å skryte av hvor lite realfag man kan.

Flere smakebiter finner du hos Flukten fra virkeligheten.