Bad Science by Ben Goldacre: You Must Read It

Published September 8, 2009 in Books - 4 Comments

Bad Science cover

Bad Science is essentially about what it says on the cover.  In it, Ben Goldacre, a Doctor and columnist for The Guardian, rails against the horrible misinterpretation of scientific studies often found in newspapers and TV-shows, makes fun of nutritionists and some of their silly claims and rants about misleading and unfounded health-scares, among other things. In all this, he is not just informative and thorough, but also very funny. Bad Science is a book that I could hardly put down, it was so interesting and so much fun to read.

While the book mainly focuses on medicine and medical science, it’s greatest merit lies in the way it explains and frames the scientific method. In the early parts, the book introduces some fairly basic criteria of what is scientifically sound and what isn’t. It slowly expands on these concepts and by the time you are done with it, you’ll be that much more capable of spotting faulty studies, skewed results and foul statistics yourself. The book also offers the perspective of scientific thought being readily available, easy to understand and basically something anyone can do, anytime. You don’t need a degree or a white lab-coat to apply science – and the fact that science is often portrayed as something exclusive to sophisticated, bearded and bespectacled men is one that Goldacre strongly contests.

What particularly struck a chord with me is one of the mottos that reoccur in Bad Science, which is: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Simple solutions are very tempting, but once you dig a bit deeper, you often find that things are more complex and also more interesting than at first glance. This has been something of a central theme for myself and it is represented wonderfully in Bad Science. When Goldacre digs, he digs deep and with admirable persistence. You can follow some of this wonderful digging on the Bad Science Blog. (Also, you can get the T-Shirt with the above motto here.)

Quite simply, my conclusion is that Bad Science should be required reading for just about everyone – not only because otherwise you might never know enough about Homeopathy to make a smart decision about it, or always remain puzzled when clever people believe stupid things or forever think there is nothing wrong with the claim that certain foods are good for you because they contain a lot of oxygen – but also for the fresh perspective on scientific thought that it offers. Apart from that, you’ll have a good laugh while reading this book, and don’t the say that laughter is the best medicine? Or is that another example of bad science?

You can find the book here on Amazon. For more book recommendations, see my recommended books page.

  • Definitely agree – this is an important book for people to read. My only comment is that Goldacre can come across as a bit ranty and arrogant so that he sometimes spoils very compelling and proper arguments by overstating them. I’d love it if he would write a sort of self-help book for rational thinkers. For example, how to apply the scientific method in your own life, how to discriminate between good and bad claims for a medical or ‘alternative’ treatment etc.

  • Thanks for commenting!
    I agree, Goldacre can be very abrasive and cynical. Somehow, he can get away with it, because he backs all his claims with solid evidence. As for a further book: I just hope he’s writing one. I liked Bad Science so much, I’ll read anything he cares to write at this point. 🙂

  • Simon White

    Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark” could be considered as a “self-help book for rational thinkers”. It’s not referenced by Bad Science (or vice versa, since it’s much older), but there’s a fair bit of overlap in the subject matter.

    People who are explaining conclusions they reached by ruthless application of the scientific method, as Goldacre is doing, quite understandably have the courage of their convictions. As far as I can see, it’s a common criticism of books like this that the writer has an arrogant tone, I just hope the majority of readers are able to look past it.

    • Thanks for your comment! I hadn’t heard of that Sagan book yet. I’ll give it a read when I get the chance.