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Just what the doctor ordered

Bad Science
by Ben Goldacre
Harper Perennial, pp288
ISBN-13: 978-0007284870

Last Sunday, the UK Sunday Times Style magazine ran a two page article entitled Will This Potion Make You Thin? It was written by Edwina Ings-Chambers who quotes proponents saying that a hormone called HCG, which occurs naturally in pregnancy, can help you lose 40 pounds a month.

“Human Chorionic Gonadotro­pin works on the hypothalamus gland, which governs some metabolic processes,” say Jeanette Blackwell, of the Chesire-based Blackwell Slimming Clinic. Ings-Chambers goes on to explain the minutae of how and why this hormone works or doesn’t. But she does not really need to, does she? I had you at “lose 40 pounds a month” did I not?

Our generation has grown up with instant everything, from mash to gratification, so it is quite obvious really that we would expect our bodies to react in the same microwaveable manner after we have eaten way too much instant food. We read “scientific” articles in magazines, newspapers and websites, as well as listen to the never-ending slew of “experts” and “nutritionists” on the radio, and never stop for one minute to ask important questions. Why is this product being promoted? What kind of serious research exists to back up the claims? What connections – commercial or otherwise – exist between the writers or “experts” and the companies selling the actual product?

Ben Goldacre has made it his life’s commitment to out what he terms as “bad science”. Since 2003, he has been writing a column for The Guardian, in which he outs fellow writers, including his own colleagues. In The Guardian’s own words, “Each week, Ben Goldacre skewers the enemies of reason. If you’re a journalist who misrepresents science for the sake of a headline, a politician more interested in spin than evidence, or an advertiser who loves pictures of molecules in little white coats, then beware: your days are numbered”.

In his Bad Science, a very readable collection of some of the columns, Mr Goldacre points his finger at Victoria Health, a website that “specialises in natural health products”. Victoria Health always seems to get significant column inches, especially courtesy of a few particular columnists. Mr Goldacre’s allegations are extremely serious, in that in not so many words, he says that the website does not just “give freebies” to the journalists to test (which is normal in any journalistic environment) but may actually be giving them “more”. He stops short of defining what the “more” is but the reader does not need much imagination to put two and two together.

Mr Goldacre also questions where “nutritionists” get their qualifications, how most scientific papers get written and published, what medical ghost-writers actually do, how scientific “evidence” is compiled into yet another front-page worthy article, how medical “news” gets syndicated throughout the world via international agencies such as Reuters and re-printed lock, stock and un-analysed barrel through sub-editors who not only do not understand what they are publishing but have no idea of their responsibility when disseminating this kind of news.

Two very serious chapters are really worth focusing on. The first deals with homeopathy and the placebo effect. As a “success story” of homeopathy I could relate to the sensitive way in which Mr Goldacre tackles what can be a very emotive subject – why did I get better? Was it because the homeopath (a real doctor, as in, a general practitioner) gave me her time, her sympathy or her tiny sugar pillules? Did my brain heal me? Even more serious than that is the issue of the latest, and extremely expensive cancer drugs and how strategically placed articles can mean that victims’ relatives, crippled with pain and sorrow, put pressure on hospitals and governments to provide them for free. While homeopathy may be costing the British NHS quite a bit in terms of specialist fees, the latter methodology is almost scary in its marketing perfection and costs millions more.

Mr Goldacre’s reading of media and how words are placed strategically, even within an actual article, is unparalleled, to the point that he would not survive for more than a month were he trying to carry out this essential investigation in Malta. “Occasionally one story pops up to illustrate a wider issue, and ‘Strict diet two days a week cuts risk of breast cancer by 40 per cent’,” is a good example. It goes on: “A strict diet for two days a week consisting solely of vegetables, fruit, milk and a mug of Bovril could prevent breast cancer, scientists say”.

This book is essential for the pill-popping “mother’s little helper” generation as well as the middle classes who think that anything with “natural” on its packaging is just the thing to solve yet another “allergy” that their children have developed. It is shocking, but it is also comforting to know that you are not the only person wondering how these solutions to life’s ills seem way too easy if only we had yet another pill.

• For Mr Borg, a book is everyone’s best friend.

The review copy of this title is the reviewer’s own.

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