Revival

Now then. There’s a sixteen-day gap in this blog which I might be reasonably expected to fill in, even if for little more than to satiate the displeasure of the (imagined) regular reader.

Quite a few things have taken place in this time. Firstly, Parisians have had to put up with my intrusion, laced with halting French, into their idyllic existence for five days. Immigration red tape, in the meantime, droned idly in the background. In fact, my hop to Paris was a successful circumnavigation of the expiry of my student visa; I returned as a visitor with permission to hang about purposelessly for a further six months. Then my impending return to the Far East necessitated some logistical preparation, and the inevitable emotional grappling.

Following that, there are applications to be done. If I may, I shall throw in a gripe about the ridiculous demands of the Cambridge History faculty, who have their application deadline for overseas students seeking funding set so far in advance of the academic year that it’s unreal. What irony there is, as they fail to notice, in the demanding of incredible foresight in prospective students, in a discipline where astute hindsight is decidedly of greater intrinsic value.

And then there are books. Ten of them, in fact, recklessly acquired in a whimsical flurry made possible by a Waterstones gift card at the value of a hundred quid. Of these I managed to get through three thus far, and it is the third of which I would so keenly wish upon you, and everyone else who gives the slightest of damn about anything.

Earlier in the life of this prepubescent blog, I was rather gushing in my comments about a certain Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News, on how it challenges common wisdoms, confirms nagging fears and engenders unbridled cynicism. I think it no coincidence that the book I am about to recommend does the same; dispensing similar intellectual tonic on matters so pervasive and fundamentally intertwined in our daily existence. What Davies’ work does for the mass media and the fantasy of speaking truth to power, Ben Goldacre’s does for public health and the systematic, evidence-based pursuit of knowledge.

I shan’t bore with you with a detailed CV of this Goldacre; in fact to do so is to fall into parody of the very evils which the news media perpetrates in much reportage of science news. The bare essentials are these – Goldacre is a qualified medical doctor working in London for the NHS, who also writes a weekly column in the Guardian, entitled Bad Science, discussing…well, the flawed practice of science. Find out more about him if you’d like, although it shouldn’t really affect your reading of his work, which should be judged upon its own merits and flaws. If you find yourself incredibly impressed and taken in by a glittering list of his accomplishments, you are exactly the kind of person who needs to read and digest the fundamental message in his book.

Bad Science (the book) is sort of a beginner’s guide to the issues Goldacre discusses in his columns. It presumes nothing and explains everything, demystifies issues of science and its public and social implications, and teaches one to cast a wary eye on anything that wears fancy statistics and bold, definitive “sciency” claims like a badge of honour.

Goldacre starts small, going first after the perhaps more obvious prey that are scientifically-flawed school lessons (Brain Gym), bodycare products (detox and cosmetics), and homeopathy (water memory etc.) – stuff that discerning people, which unfortunately most readers of this book will already be, would know better than to buy into. But this is not a futile exercise in merely stating the obvious. He sets out the fundamentals, the first principles, upon which these science-related issues and products are to be judged, before one can feel sufficiently informed and ready to take on the big boys – the nutritionists riding on the shoulders of sciency-sounding research, the drug firms, big pharma, the news media, the misuse of statistics, and even medical practice in general.

There’s very little of that moralising, holier-than-thou claptrap. Thankfully, Goldacre writes not from a pulpit, but from behind a messy, overcrowded IKEA desk of utter geekiness; much like a obsessive compulsive pedant with little patience for intellectual laziness and the betrayal of  scientific empiricism and reasoning. If you are shamed into reticence or inspired to action, it wouldn’t be out of saintly compunction. Rather it would have been the impetus of logic and impulse of rationality that drove you from naiveté and ambivalence.

Read it, digest it, and learn the basic defences against bad science which one day might save you a whole lot of money, anguish and pain. Better yet, go to www.badscience.net to discuss your views with Goldacre, critique his ideas, flag up dubious science news stories and PR disinformation, or just be thoroughly and unashamedly nerdy.

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~ by spiegel2071 on November 14, 2009.

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