Bad Science. Ben Goldacre.

Goldacre, Ben. Bad Science. Fourth Estate (Collins) 2008. NF;06/11.

Dr. Goldacre has a blog as well as a column in a British newspaper, and that was my introduction to his refreshingly tart brand of health science critical review elitism. He’s much in the style of some good friends of mine who are serious about critical analysis of health science literature: funny, iconoclastic, and toting just enough self-parody that we overlook his obviously being full of himself.

He focuses on taking down several UK media darlings who have championed nutritionism, homeopathy, and the danger of MMR vaccination, and decks each of them (imaginary credentials, works out of a shed in his back yard, screws everybody in sight) easily no question, although he tends to return and kick them in the ribs again after they would have to have been already bleeding motionless on the mat. And he goes back over and over again to disclaim being a know-it-all, jumping to conclusions, ruining people’s careers, and boring us with statistics (which he coyly divulges he just adores).

Goldacre and a lot of other popular commentary lately makes me wonder how come we seem to be okay with science nerds’ ill-concealed narcissism? It’s cute, kind of, rather than nauseating when they twirl and curtsy their statistics and outrageous numerical comparisons at us. It’s a fey version of the old know-how engineers’ sexist joking: nice set of legs on that whatsamajiggit har har. Boys will be boys, which is fine as long as the whatsamajiggit doesn’t burn the toast. We certainly wouldn’t put up today with that kind of PI (let alone fey PI) stuff from old arts farts, who I guess exhausted their popular capital when they had their innings in the 1930s and 40s. I think I liked them better.

All the same, Dr G shows a nice appreciation of the placebo effect. It’s human to be embedded in culture, he implies, and he finds that interesting. It’s a shame he doesn’t speculate on the relative value and place in the world of it, vis-à-vis his science. I think he’s a recent graduate, and so ignoring what’s wrong with legitimate and elite academic scientists (his heroes) is forgivable. And it’s definitely good fun when he poufs the giant gum bubbles of some of the worst histrionic media bullshit, and then fans the fumes around for us to smell. It was his reference to On Bullshit that prompted me to order it.

Delightful cutting-edge medical science bearing down on a huge and unlikely-to-disappear mess. A friend who does critical reviews rightly pointed out there’s enough of it to keep us all busy for quite some time. We’ll see how long our taste for this brand of fun lasts. 7.4

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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