Non-fiction: “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre

After the hell that was the last two books, it was extremely refreshing to read this compendium of how the media and medical communities manipluate scientific findings in order to further their own agendas.

Dr. Ben Goldacre runs a blog (also titled Bad Science), and he turned his blog into the book. He is a medical doctor in England, and while I’m unsure if he practices medicine, he definitely understands medicine — and the scientific method — well enough to distill complex theories down so that someone like me can understand them. Some of the concepts he discusses are: the homeopathy movement and the placebo effect; the new career path that is the nutritionist path; and the MMR vaccine potentially (and, it turns out, spuriously) being a cause of autism.

That sounds like a lot of points. But his main point, throughout the book and the different scenarios and studies, is that in order to understand these complex concepts and ideas, all one needs to do is remain informed of the root of the problem.

For instance: one of “Britain’s leading nutritionist[s]” proclaimed in a column

“… An Australian study in 2001 found that olive oil (in combination with fruit, vegetables and pulses) offered measurable protection aganst skin wrinkling. Eat more olive oil by using it in salad dressings or dip bread in it rather than using butter.” [90-91]

A pretty direct link, yes? However, when Dr. Goldacre did research on the nutritionist’s research (which he recommends you do with any new medical breakthrough, not just nutritionists), he found that the study on which this nutritionist based her findings was compiled by pooling four different groups of people in different lifestyles, “and it found that people who had completely different eating habits … also had different amounts of wrinkles.” What the nutritionist didn’t take into account are the “confounding variables”: things that are related to both the thing you’re attempting to measure (wrinkles) and the thing that we’re trying to find affect it (lifestyle). Not just olive oil reduces wrinkles: the place you live, the job you have, all of those aspects of your lifestyle will affect how you generate wrinkles. In her column, the only thing she latched on to was the olive oil.

And there’s more. But the most disturbing piece was on the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and the scare that went out across Britain and is seeping into the US: that giving children the MMR vaccine causes autism. What Dr. Goldacre revealed was that the catalyst for the scare was a paper published that told about eight out of twelve children that were brought into a clinic with gastrointestinal problems. All twelve children had a history of autism (here called a “pervasive developmental disorder”). With the eight children in question,

the onset of behavioral problems had been linked, either by the parents or by the child’s physician, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination … In these eight children the average interval from exposure to first behavioral symptoms was 6.3 days (range 1-14). [216]

But how was the link determined? Was it timing? Was another study created based upon this evidence, which seems flimsy at best to a layperson like me, to attempt to prove that the MMR vaccine causes autism? How would one conduct that kind of study — ask parents to make the new Sophie’s Choice, decide whether they want their child to get measles later in life or autism sooner?

I’m not going to get into this here and now. Dr. Goldacre makes the best point he can: that due to many factors, what should have been relegated to the “medical hunch” column got picked up and turned into a national story that created a medical scare no one had seen the likes of. It caused a lot of people to decide to not vaccinate their children, and may have led to an outbreak of the measles in the latter part of the last decade in England. But Dr. Goldacre’s point, again, is this: if the journalists had taken a moment to actually investigate — either on their own or by asking a flotilla of impartial doctors — the tenuous link between MMR and autism, maybe the scare wouldn’t have happened.

Here’s why I really liked this book (although, to be honest, I was expecting the ‘bad science’ to be more along the lines of experiments gone wrong rather than misleading studies and badly reported stories): I’ve been picking away at a second bachelor’s degree, this one in media studies. And my Intro to Communications class was a survey course of different communication theories. I chose to write my paper on Cultivation Theory, which, simply stated, posits that a person will base their worldview on how the world is perceived through media.

A real-world application: let’s say I have a friend who watches just as much TV as I do. And this friend — let’s call her Jane, because I legitimately do not know a Jane — watches the following programs religiously: NCIS, Criminal Minds, Law & Order: SVU, The Vampire Diaries, and Revenge. Now, Jane and I watch NCIS and The Vampire Diaries together, but when Jane goes home, I queue up on the TiVo Community (when it’s on), Once Upon a Time, Modern Family, and Conan.

When Jane and I go into Boston to shop, she stays close to the touristy areas and doesn’t venture far from the beaten path. She keeps a tight grasp on her purse, and doesn’t make eye contact with any passers-by. I, however, nod and smile at people and look for adventure in the oddest of places. Because Jane watches TV that suggests that people — strangers — are either serial killers, psychopaths, and/or sociopaths, she believes that anyone she meets on the street could be a potential villain — or, possibly, a vampire. Whereas I, who watches primarily comedies, believe that people hold the key to the absurd in the everyday, and will trust strangers more easily, and be more adventurous in my travels.

And now, the example that ties everything together!

One of my friends posted to Facebook recently an article discussing a recent House Resolution. According to the linked article, the legislation is the first step towards the United States becoming a police state. The article is titled, “House Passes Bill That Will Make Protesting Illegal at Secret Service Covered Events.” As you can guess, the article claims that “the new legislation allows prosecutors to charge anyone who enters a building without permission or with the intent to disrupt a government function with a federal offense if Secret Service is on the scene …”.

There are many people — not just my facebook friend, but other people, tons who decided to comment anonymously on the article — who believe that this is the government outlawing our god-given right to protest. That any protester, for any reason — or for no reason at all — can be arrested and sent to jail.

Guys. No.

If you read the actual legislation — which I have handily linked to here, for those interested — it is clear that the law is actually written with the, what I call “crazy protesters” in mind. It is clear that the law is designed to protect those precious government buildings and workers from the protestors who intend to disrupt government work, or intend to block the exits or entrances of federal buildings to impede the business going on, or bring physical violence to a protest.

Under this resolution, we as Americans are certainly allowed to protest. The First Amendment gives each of us the right to peaceably assemble. And the most important word in that sentence is peaceably. You can wave signs around in front of any building you wish, and you can yell anything you want at your congressman through the window, and you know what, I’ll bet that you can quietly chant in the Rotunda as long as you aren’t going to reach across the velvet rope and try to accost that congressman. If this law is going to make me do anything, it’s going to protest against the new definition of ‘protest’ that is sweeping the nation.

Anyway. Soapbox destroyed. The point, once more, from myself and from Dr. Goldacre: if people took the time to read things more, and to take the time to become more informed on the facts of a story before storming off to the papers or to post the link to your interwebs, the world would actually be a lot less scary.

Let’s all try it and see if it works. Huh? Come on! It’ll be fun!

Grade for Bad Science: 3.5 stars

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