Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre is something of a National Treasure. His Bad Science column is by far the best thing in The Guardian on Saturdays, and is always excellent reading. Ben’s a doctor working in the NHS, he knows how scientific experiments are supposed to be done, and he’s a wee bit annoyed about some of the nonsense that newspapers and TV report.

His focus is on medicine and related areas, as (1) he knows about the subject and (2) it has a major impact on people’s lives. In this excellent book, he takes a good hard look at the claims of “Detox” merchants, “nutritionists” who have no real qualifications other than the ability to sell books full of dubious information, garden shed labs occupied by people the dumber segments of the press believe are world-class experts who mysteriously find bacteria in samples that proper labs believe to be clean[1], and much, much more.

This is a very serious and important book. Even if you don’t agree with Ben’s take on matters such as homoeopathy and food supplements, you’ll find yourself better equipped to interpret claims, and to ask the awkward questions that the press tend not to bother with.

But while the subject matter and the motivation are very serious, Ben’s style leads towards the humorous. Yes, it’s fun to read, not least the bit about the amazing (or not) Aqua Detox system. This involves you putting your bare feet into a bowl of warm salty water. An electric current is passed through the water, which (allegedly) creates something called a bio-energetic field which will encourage your body to release “toxins”. Sure enough, the water turns brown. Amazing!! But Ben asks the question that credulous[2] journalists don’t:

What happens if you leave your feet out of the bowl?

He then goes on to explain how to make your own Aqua Detox, with a warning about electricity, of course. And as anyone who wasn’t asleep in their basic science lessons will be completely unastounded to learn, the water goes just as brown without any toxin-exuding feet present. Could it be electrolysis? Well, of course it is…

And there’s a lot more to read and learn from. Well worth a read, as is Ben’s column, which you can catch up with on his Bad Science blog, so you don’t even have to buy the paper.

[1] The word “contamination” would come to the mind of anyone who knows anything. Sadly, most of the offending articles are not written by the science correspondents of the papers – people who have had at least some training that would help them filter out the more ludicrous claims – but by general journalists who want a big dramatic story, facts optional.
[2] Or in this case, I think the word “stupid” might be more appropriate