London newsstands can strike Americans as remarkable, both for the number of different papers being sold and for their alarming headlines. Most U.S. cities are lucky to have a single daily newspaper—shrinking in both physical size and circulation—with fairly staid contents. In contrast, Britain has about 10 daily newspapers that contend for a national audience. Their circulations are also slipping, but the fact that they are competing for readers makes their coverage colorful by American standards.
The tendency of the British press toward sensationalism has provided physician and science writer Ben Goldacre with a nearly endless supply of “Bad Science”—the title of his weekly column that ran in The Guardian from 2003 to 2011. His new book, I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That, collects more than 100 short pieces—many of which originally ran in his column—that break down systemic problems with how science is presented and discussed in the public forum.
To Goldacre, “bad science” is a term that encompasses a variety of problems, from reporters who write stories that favor titillation over accuracy, and those who fail to understand the research they purport to summarize, to editors who favor compelling headlines that distort a story’s contents. Then there are the professional journals that issue press releases to promote their contents; the conferences that call attention to preliminary findings; the researchers who talk about their work in the media limelight before it has gone through peer review; and the ghostwriters hired by pharmaceutical corporations to produce articles reporting favorable results for their drugs. And, of course, there are the outright hucksters, who claim to have found miracle cures, effortless weight-loss schemes, and the like. Many of these figures manage to find their way into British newspapers and television programs—and those who don’t can always set up shop on the Internet.
Goldacre’s goal is to explain to the general public how science works by showing how bad science falls short, and he has a lot of fun doing so. He doesn’t dumb down his arguments, but he favors snarky phrasings and delights in skewering politicians, activists, reporters, and purveyors of snake oil.
I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That covers a lot of territory: from the value of fluoride in drinking water (“Foreign Substances in Your Precious Bodily Fluids”), to coffee-induced hallucinations (“Drink Coffee, See Dead People”), to the surprisingly resilient claims about vaccines causing autism (“MMR: The Scare Stories Are Back”). In his introduction, Goldacre says, “I hope it works as a kind of statistics toilet book, bringing satisfaction in short bursts, with a fight an d an idea in each one,” and it does work on that level. Each piece offers a thoughtful critique of some dubious claim, yet can be read in a few minutes.
The underlying message is that we need to think critically about how science finds its way into the media. The scientific literature is impossibly vast. As Goldacre points out, “there are over 24,000 academic journals in existence, 1.3 million academic papers published every year.” Yet only an infinitesimal fraction of this work attracts news coverage. Given these realities, he maintains that both reporters and readers should demand transparency from researchers. Those who are unwilling to present their data, describe their methods, and submit their work to peer review should not, in his opinion, be in the public spotlight. At the same time, he points out that the media are all too eager to publicize even highly dubious claims—for example, “Health Warning: Exercise Makes You Fat.”
Goldacre applies the same criticism to review articles, emphasizing the value of systematic reviews (where the standards for including studies are clearly defined and strictly implemented), in pieces including “Cherry-Picking Is Bad. At Least Warn Us When You Do It.” He also takes the government to task for ignoring peer-reviewed research that questions the value of their pet policies (“Why Is Evidence So Hard for Politicians?”). The book even covers the issue of the accessibility of scientific publications in a world of paywalls in “Academic Papers Are Hidden from the Public. Here’s Some Direct Action.”
These are relatively sophisticated critiques for a newspaper column but—as Goldacre’s “bad” examples demonstrate—they are needed. If you’ve read and liked his earlier books, you’ll probably enjoy this one, but if you aren’t familiar with his work, I’d recommend starting with his earlier best-sellers (1, 2).
B. Goldacre, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks (Faber & Faber, London, 2010).
B. Goldacre, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (Faber & Faber, London, 2012).