Bad science. Quacks, hacks, and big pharma … flacks …

goldacre_bad scienceAUTHOR: Ben Goldacre


SUMMARY: A toolbox for the critical thinker, and a scathing account of the large-scale abuses of pseudo-scientific practices: from big pharma to flower remedies.

AUDIENCE: This book does not focus on dogs but if every dog trainer and behaviourist embraced its values, our unregulated profession would be rid of the nonsense claims and partisanship that plague it. Dog owners would greatly benefit from reading it too, to tell the unscrupulous from the serious professional with this “charlatan detection 101”. And do you know what? Make the audience academics too: it is a masterpiece in science communication. Learn from the master of powerful and in-your-face analogies if you want to carry your message further than the four walls of your lab, and spread reason beyond the intellectual elite.

02 Professional

REVIEW: I try to avoid reviewing books that do not focus on dogs on this page, but it is of such immense applicability to our field that I made it one of the few exceptions.

“Bad Science” will help the reader understand the principles of the scientific method. I mean REALLY understand them, and, hopefully, integrate them into their critical thinking toolbox so that they never again are the dupes of dubious claims, adorned as they are with poor logic, shady research and opinions made facts.

The book calls out scientific foul play across the spectrum, from the esoteric industry to big pharma. ‘Bad Science’ gives you a thorough account of the science news item du jour (e.g. MMR vaccine ‘controversy’, SSRI’s cover-up, acupuncture’s cries for credibility, etc.). Go ahead, make up your mind on these issues: but do so in an informed and rational way, and please be ready to review your opinion when better evidence comes along. Hopefully, you’ll read it before you go up in arms against GM, before you push for homeopathy to be reimbursed by health insurances, and before you jump on the latest conspiracy bandwagon.

‘Bad Science” will also help you sort the chaff from the wheat when conflicting ‘scientific’ findings are presented to you. No longer will you think: “Research findings support both sides of this argument. Science is just more political nonsense.” If you truly embrace the message of the book, you will understand that, yes, the reliability of claims sits on a spectrum (what is 100% reliably true?), but there IS an objective way to compare their relative merits. The scientific method works like a system of demerits (e.g. sample size too small, presenting relative instead of absolute risk, conflicts of interest, not falsifiable/independently verifiable results, not ever reproduced, results close to what chance would have yielded, fishing for good results in a sea of bad ones, unrepresentative sample, etc.). You’ll learn to apply these demerits to each claim that is presented to you to assess reliability without calling out political allegiances or emotional bias.

I found the book impossible to put down. What with the scathing wit and fact-packed scandals. If you already were a critical thinker, read it anyway. You’ll find the turns of phrases, simplifications and analogies help bring your point across more compellingly in the future. I have a long and traumatic history of my audience’s eyes glazing over after yet another tirade on poor statistics and shaky research design, so I share your pain. To my disbelief, it seems that most mortals don’t get as wildly excited as me about statistics and science, and, if I am to get my message across, I need to embrace that.

One negative point: at times, the pace gets excruciatingly slow if you have a background in science. But hang in there: the verve and wit are worth the few patronizing moments. The other side of THAT coin is that, even if you are a total beginner at, say, statistics, the author will break it down in tiny paragraphs focusing only on what you need to know and, pronto, you can interpret basic statistical claims critically!

So, whether you only have a tentative understanding of the scientific method, or whether you’re a lifelong skeptic, I guarantee you, hand on heart, pinky swear and all that, you WILL love this book. And hopefully, a tiny faction of the noble nerdy message will stay with you and humanity will become the overwhelmingly rational species it has the potential to be, one reader at a time.

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Author: Goldacre Ben
Genre: pop science
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  • […] Bad science (Ben Goldacre): Not written about dogs specifically, but nonetheless an essential tool in detecting pseudoscientific claims. You can also read its little brother, Beware the strawman (Linda Case): it’s another critical thinking book but this one is just about dogs. […]

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