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Year : 2010  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 409-410

Bad Science

Ph.D (Operations Research), Fellow - Royal Statistical Society, President: Nuvis Anlytics Pvt Ltd, India

Date of Web Publication29-Nov-2010

Correspondence Address:
C R Sridhar
Ph.D (Operations Research), Fellow - Royal Statistical Society, President: Nuvis Anlytics Pvt Ltd
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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How to cite this article:
Sridhar C R. Bad Science. J Can Res Ther 2010;6:409-10

How to cite this URL:
Sridhar C R. Bad Science. J Can Res Ther [serial online] 2010 [cited 2021 Jan 24];6:409-10. Available from: https://www.cancerjournal.net/text.asp?2010/6/3/409/73323

Author: Ben Goldacre

Publishers: Harper Perennial Paperback 2009

Cost: Rs. 350

Bad Science is a good book. It is an essential reading for medical professionals, irrespective of their specialization. Goldacre's primary objective of writing this book is to expose bad use of science in promoting products and ideas that are either not tested or have failed a genuine test. Bad science is a result of reporting by science journalists who have neither the capability nor the time to verify medical claims and results dished out by scientists who have poor scientific credentials but masquerade as experts. Bad science is a result of pharmaceutical companies presenting part results of their drug trial data. The combination of these three poses "health hazards" to the public. Apart from lay public, the medical professionals should take a serious note of Goldacre's advice in this book: "Learn what constitutes a good scientific experiment and check the veracity of the claims from the perspective of science and not social standing of the source of news."

Brain Gym practiced in UK schools makes a mockery of science. It is a set of proprietary exercises that purportedly help British school children improve their brain functioning. You can assess the quality of grey matter that has gone into designing this activity when you see an instruction that says "Drink a glass of water before Gym activities, as it is a major component of blood water and is vital for transporting oxygen to the brain". It is a shocking expose on the stupidity of a system that means well: to make British children more intelligent. The purpose is right but the process sucks.

Goldacre discusses in detail the usefulness of homeopathy and exposes the uselessness of the tall claims made by this fraternity. Homeopathy pills, based on data from many experiments, are placebos. It is known, again through a large body of experimental results, that placebos work on children and even animals too. Homeopathy works, not because of the low concentration of arsenic or magnesium, but because the pills are placebos administered by white coats (doctors) in a pseudo-clinical setting. Complementary and Alternate Medicine too come under his scrutiny with similar results. His discussion on placebo effect is brilliant. It almost makes a case for placebo prescription to be the first line of treatment for very many chronic diseases.

Food has become an obsession all over the world, what to eat, what not to eat and who should eat are the questions that media champions, almost every day. Carrots are good for eyes, antioxidants help your skin glow, turmeric prevents cancer, garlic reduces chances of heart attack are commonly held notions about the good effects of food. Are these scientifically established facts? No. The information from theoretical science and lab experiments on animals has been cherry picked to arrive at statements that have become part of our food folklore. Goldacre gives a number of examples of these myths that drive media's "bad food science".

Goldacre singles out two luminaries, Professor Patrick Holford and Dr Gillian McKeith, for a scathing attack. Gillian McKeith is a multi-millionaire pill entrepreneur with a popular TV program where she doles out pill advice. She hawks pills for all types of diseases from infection to erection. Neither she has the qualifications to be a food scientist nor do her pills have any tested effect. "While Gillian McKeith leads the theatrical battalions, Patric Holford is a very different animal: He is the academic lynchpin at the centre of the British nutritionism movement…". One chapter each has been devoted to these two unscrupulous but highly respected nutrition champions, with details of damning evidence against their methods and machinations.

Some of the details about how pharmaceutical companies bend the results of their clinical trials to suit their commercial interests are an eye opener. Despite heavy oversight on drugs and pharmaceutical industry, they are masters at sleight of hand. Vioxx is a well-known case of large-scale effect of suppression of trial data. There could be others. As drug companies run out of new molecules, the chances of bad molecules with good news reports will increase.

Last but not the least rung in this propagation of Bad Science is the media. Science journalists are equally responsible for making the McKeiths and the Holfords what they are. Science journalists are supposed to check and verify tall claims made by leading lights in the areas of health, food and nutrition or, for that matter, any scientific discovery and not print leaflets and brochures from them verbatim. But time, talent and the trend to highlight the claims by scientific twisting of facts have been responsible for pushing nonsense into the minds of the lay public through catchy headlines. "There is a danger with authority figure coverage, in the absence of real evidence, because it leaves the field wide open for questionable authority figures to waltz in". The details of the MMR scare that has spread in Britain, with thousands of children being affected because they believe MMR leads to autism, form a scary story of the devil's dance of media and medical professionals. It did not spare even Tony Blair, the ex-Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Goldacre's advice is: Do not take what is said about health, food and medicines for granted. Go through the details from credible sources. Can a common man do it? A housewife with skills in running her blender will accept an expert's opinion on the good effects of flax seed oil on her husband's bad cholesterol. She cannot do a careful sifting of facts and figures and then judge what is doled out by media or a pharma company is correct or not. But health professionals can and should. Cochrane Collaboration is one such source which publishes systematic summaries of literature on health care research including meta-analysis. There are other sources quoted in the book that would be of interest.

But does a busy medical professional have the time and inclination to check and verify the news items and drug literature? The situation demands that they should.


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