Recommended: Bad Science

imageBen Goldacre's energetically scathing book Bad Science highlights a series of problems underlying scientific work, such as bad studies, bad experiments, bad analysis, and bad reporting. Goldacre is himself a medical scientist from the UK so much of his criticism is leveled against the British media and medical establishment, although it still applies to other fields of study. His key targets are alternative medical practitioners, especially homeopathics and nutritionists, as well as other fads that celebrities and their favorite doctors pedal in the mass media. There appears to be two paths that alternative medicine takes in order to validate themselves. One is to discredit mainstream scientific studies as part of a larger conspiracy controlled by big interests-corporations, governments and the media. The other strategy is to align themselves with mainstream science and pretend that they do “real” scientific work while hiding their methods, results and analysis from the real scientific community. Granted that pharmaceutical companies are part of the problem, Goldacre argues that this does not necessary make alternative medicine the adequate solution. Alternative medicine seems to create their own forms of logic (anyone into theories of knowledge would love this) by arguing something like “If science cannot cure you, then that means we can.” (This line of thinking does sound awfully familiar in educational research as well.) These ideas prey on the tendency for people to look for simple, straightforward solutions to their concerns and ailments. Thus, it’s much more comforting to believe that a healthy dose of antioxidants can cure you (according to the book, they can’t; in fact, they can kill you) or that this exotic-sounding plant extract can do wonders to your skin. In some cases, these pseudosciences lead to more than just wasted money and time and cause catastrophic outcomes. One of them is the belief that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is linked to autism; the other is that AIDS is a myth used by Western powers to further oppress Third World countries. In the UK, this has resulted in growing numbers of parents opting not vaccinate their children and the resurgence of mumps in children. In South Africa, this has led to a policy of refusing protection and medical equipment that could potential reduce the spread of AIDS from mother to babies. In the meantime, the ones going about propagating this nonsense benefit by becoming “champions” of the people willing to stand up to higher powers. A few of his criticisms are familiar. For example, he points out the dangers of statistical reporting and the common misunderstanding people have between correlation and causation. Interestingly, I think that while most people say they understand this difference, more often than not, when I read articles based on statistical findings, this distinction isn’t clearly articulated. Causation is wonderful to find but more often than not, it’s an illusion, the result of wishful thinking. He also points out the distortion created by relative percentage and absolute percentage increases. Again, this is something that most people will claim they understand, even though many people who hear things like “a 50 percent increase in drug use” is likely to be alarmed by the numbers, even if the actual increase is much less extravagant. The problem again is familiar: shocking numbers makes for better news stories and if the media has the choice between a benign-sounding number and a shocking one, they’re going to opt for the latter. Goldacre also points out the tendency for scholars, even good ones, to focus on positive findings (i.e. findings that confirm their hypotheses) instead of negative findings. That’s an issue common in my own field of work, where I seldom come across studies showing the good and bad side of new media—be it videogames, social networks, or wikis. (Just survey the titles of books on new media to get an idea of what I mean.) This lack of a balanced does no one any favors and only serves to distort the reality of what people do. The issue, as always, is the pressure to report on success. It’s much less prestigious to report on a failed experiment, even if that failure could actually lead to interesting findings. Knowing what not to do is itself a finding worth reporting on, but few would venture there for fear of looking bad. It’s always interesting to read a book written with such force. More often than not, I’m worried about offending people whom I disagree with. Perhaps that’s why I like to read writers like Ben Goldacre and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who don’t seem to have any qualms about telling you what’s wrong with the system and who is responsible for it.