In Bad Science Ben Goldacre takes the time to carefully demolish a variety of pseudo-scientific myths that the mass media, industry, and advertising, has induced upon us. He doesn’t make a lot of generalisations or sweeping statements, just presents a lot of facts and clear evidence – something the mass media rarely does.
He also introduces the reader to a lot of knowledge about scientific methods, the traits of effective (and ineffective) research: control groups; the role of placebos; double-blind trials; why brand name drugs are no better than generic brands, except by virtue of the fact that you pay more for them which, paradoxically, gives you a greater placebo effect (because, subconsciously, a drug that is more expensive must be more effective)!
Two of the biggest medical abbreviations from UK media in the past decade, in my mind, are MMR (the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella combined vaccination, and its links to autism) and MSRA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the hospital ‘superbug’ outbreak). In his book, Ben calmly presents some facts and details that the mass media may have forgotten to go in to (perhaps because “just kidding, we’re not all going to die after all!” is not quite as newsworthy).
He also covers common “knowledge” such as vitamins, antioxidants, other nutritionists’ products and claims, homeopathy, and more.
I’m trying hard not to enter into too much detail here because I know that I’ll degenerate into a cynical rant that simply won’t do justice to Ben’s carefully measured words and well-balanced arguments. Instead, here is a quotation from my favourite part of the book:
“What you are seeing here is a tabloid journalist telling a department of a world-class research microbiologists that they are mistaken about microbiology. This is an excellent example of a phenomenon described in one of my favourite psychology papers: ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’, by Justin Kruger and David Dunning.
They noted that people who are incompetent suffer a dual burden: not only are they incompetent, but they may also be too incompetent to assay their own incompetence, because the skills which underlie an ability to make a correct judgement are the same as the skills required to recognise a correct judgement.
People who performed particularly poorly relative to their peers were unaware of their own incompetence; but more than that, they were also less able to recognize competence in others, because this, too, relied on ‘meta-cognition’, or knowledge about the skill.”
— Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, pp.267-269.
See also: The Dangers of Bread