Saturday 11 October 2008

You've read the Bad Science blog, now buy the book

For some years I've been suspicious of mainstream media. Almost everyone I know who has had even the tiniest bit of media coverage has told of some distortion, misrepresentation or downright lies (um ... I mean, things reported as facts when they're not). Reading articles about matters on which I do have some expertise, I've been struck by the preponderance of inaccuracies. So the idea that the media don't tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth isn't new to me, as it probably isn't new to anyone. And though I've been reading Ben Goldacre's blog for over a year now, and on that basis was looking forward to reading his book, I wasn't prepared for the sheer scale of misrepresentation he so clearly and entertainingly documents in Bad Science (Fourth Estate, 2008).

He has a chapter (7) entitled "Dr Gillian McKeith PhD" in which he deconstructs the scientific pronouncements of a media nutritionist who is, apparently, a "prime-time TV celebrity", with a Channel 4 show entitled You Are What You Eat. Her name wasn't familiar to me, though I recognised the title of the show even if I'd never seen it. (I don't watch 'make-over' or similar shows - I find them embarassing and voyeuristic, especially with the modern trend of treating participants like recalcitrant schoolchildren.)

Goldacre's indictments of McKeith are damning and comprehensive, and given that (as I understand it) his book is a compendium of his Guardian columns and his blog posts, I imagined that McKeith would by now have been consigned to the media scrap-heap. But just to check, I did a little internet research, which yielded so many results that I found myself skimming the latest edition of Radio Times, to discover that You Are What You Eat was currently showing daily in an early morning slot on More4. As it happened I was due to leave the country for a few days, so I set my DVR to record a week's worth of these half-hour programmes in my absence.

I watched them back-to-back on my return (though I did fast-forward parts of the fourth and fifth, as the repetitious format had by then become seriously grating). What Goldacre says in his book is true - McKeith appeared to be obsessed with faeces and colonic irrigation, and repeatedly came out with scientific-sounding stuff for which there is no proper evidence. The programmes were strictly formatted to the point of tedium, and I was frankly amazed that they were still on TV.

Bad Science covers a lot of specifics, from the absurdities of Brain Gym to the scandal of the MMR vaccine scare - and nearly all of them are initiated, compounded and perpetuated by ill-informed and inexpert media. On the way through this quagmire of dumbing-down headlines Goldacre gives us primers on statistics, probablility, evidence-based medicine and ethical journalism. Anyone who reads the blog will be aware of Goldacre's journalistic light touch, and will therefore be clamouring for a copy of this book.

For my own part, not since reading Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World have I found a book so enlightening.