While I can’t recall exactly who pointed me at the website of Ben Goldacre, an NHS doctor, regular Guardian columnist and author, I’m very grateful to whoever that person was. His website is called Bad Science, and so is his book, which I’ve been reading.
It is, in a word, enlightening.
I’m like most consumers, I’ll admit, as much as I’d like to think I use my brain. I see branding and packaging as important, I trust the opinion of people that know more than me and I tend to take stuff written in the more reputable newspapers as fact. I think it’s fair to admit that I’ve never really had the right mental toolkit to appraise things that I read in any kind of rational way. Building this toolkit, or at least letting you know of it’s existence and that you should probably use it, is the book’s primary goal. Along the way it takes apart many of the current fads and ‘bad science’ that’s floating around in the media and that’s perpetrated against us on a daily basis – such as the wild claims of various nutritionists, including by one well-known personality into the benefits of chlorophyll, or the studies into the educational performance benefits of fish oil that were promptly buried as soon as it became apparent that there actually weren’t any.
The other thing that I find fascinating is how litigious these people get as soon as you dare to contradict them. In general, if you’re getting sued by someone in one of the alternative therapies, it is entirely down to the fact that you have pointed out a massive hole in their argument and they’re cynically trying to cover themselves. If they’re a proper scientist, behaving in an adjusted and ethical manner, they will either argue back in a rational fashion, or if they are shown to have made a mistake, formally withdraw their research. Quacks just sue. This doesn’t mean that they don’t do libellous things themselves, as recent experiences with Twitter have shown (briefly reported on by Bill Thompson).
I won’t attempt to summarise the book, I’d just advise you to read it.
There are two elements that I would like to highlight. The first is the distinction between lies, truth, and bullshit, as laid out in the essay ‘On Bullshit’ by the philosopher Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University.
“Under his model, ‘bullshit’ is a form of falsehood distinct from lying: the liar knows and cares about the truth, and is deliberately trying to mislead; the truth-speaker knows the truth, and is trying to give it to us; and the bullshitter neither knows nor cares about the truth and is merely trying to impress.”
I think the ‘bullshitter’ label can be applied quite freely to a lot of people these days, because there’s money to be made in the hills of our health, and a lot of people are (cynically/manipulatively/destructively) mining our interests for their net gain – and selling us a lot of bullshit along the way.
The second thing that I wanted to highlight was the existence of the placebo effect, which is far more interesting and mysterious and fascinating than anything at all that’s being peddled by all the quacks, hacks and bullshitters put together.