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Books: I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that (Ben Goldacre)

December 7, 2014

Ben Goldacre is a doctor/writer whose specialty is lambasting bad science and bad research methods. His famous ‘Bad Science’ (looking at examples of dodgy research methods, reporting, etc) is a favourite book of mine, though I found his follow-up, ‘Bad Pharma’ was a bit heavy going for me (perhaps because it had so much focus on one topic, important though that was, while ‘Bad Science’ was more general).

The author makes topics like statistics and research methods interesting and accessible to ordinary people. This particular book was easy for me to just read and read. It’s a collection of his articles for the Guardian. A lot of them deal with some particularly egregious example of science reporting in the media. Some of his main message include:

  • the idea that studies should be randomised and double blinded (so that the researchers can’t unintentionally affect the results)
  • negative results should be published (for example, a paper finding that medicine X did not seem to have an effect on Y is still conveying important information and should be accessible to future researchers)
  • systematic reviews (where all high quality research on a particular subject is collected and compared) are vital to truly understanding a topic
  • people who report facts should reference where they got them and they should not report on unpublished or unverifiable results
  • companies that sponsor research related to their own product should be transparent in reporting of the research, its research methods and its results
  • reporters and researchers shouldn’t ‘cherry pick’ results to support their point (eg, reporting on one study that shows product X is harmful and ignoring the twenty studies that found it was beneficial)

He points out that science, rather than being a collection of immutable facts passed down to us by experts, is really just about gathering evidence to see what works and doesn’t, and that evidence-based research could be used more widely to test the efficacy of all sorts of things.

This book is good because each column is fairly short; you can dip in and out of it if you want to. I’d still recommend ‘Bad Science’ over this book as a better overall introduction to the topics he brings up in these columns, since it explains the various concepts a little more and in a more organised way. Still, you don’t need to read ‘Bad Science’ to follow this book easily.

Since reading these books, I feel a lot more scepticism toward all those stupid reports in newspapers (‘reading has been found to cause cancer’, ‘chocolate makes your kids smarter’, etc) and also wish we could get more intelligent science reporting, with facts, methodology, etc, reported a bit more than just overgeneralisations and misrepresentations of the truth.

One comment

  1. […] titles that are irresistible and just beg to be read (e.g. Ben Goldacre’s latest book ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that‘ about dodgy medical research and health product claims based on his Bad Science/Bad Pharma […]



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