Media Panics and the Need to be Sceptical: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

I’ve always considered myself to be quite a sceptical person. That’s why I started to read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the first place. It was confirmation of things I already thought – the media are responsible for making the public both fearful and hopeful in a completely irresponsible way. It also gave me new tools with which to judge stories, the way statistics are distorted and science misrepresented, for example.

A little while ago, I went to see Goldacre speak about his new book Bad Pharma at The Showroom in Sheffield. It was both enlightening and deeply worrying as he highlighted exactly the ways that the big pharmaceutical companies bury results that don’t suit them and as a result, how doctors may not have all the information that they need to treat a patient. This was disturbing but, I thought, at least there are intelligent and motivated people like Goldacre trying to do something about it.

Seeing Goldacre speak prompted me to return to his writing and I decided to read Bad Science first although I don’t think it will be too long before I read Bad Pharma.

The first chapters in the book are about detoxing and other nonsense that the media seem to love. While it is always great to read someone debunking things quite so eloquently, part of me thought, well, if you are willing to fork out money for ear candles or an aqua detox so be it. A fool and their money and all that. I didn’t have very much sympathy for them.

One of the most interesting chapters was on the placebo effect. Everyone has some idea about what this means but I certainly had no idea how wide reaching it is. even the colour of the tablets or the packaging was important. Not long after this I tried – and failed – to convince my mother that own make, plain packaging pills were just as effective as the more expensive, official brand ones. She wouldn’t believe me or the doctor on the edition of Watchdog that we saw later that evening. It’s her money, I suppose. images

The subject matter gets more serious as the chapters progress. Goldacre looks at nutritional “experts” such as Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford who play on the nation’s insecurities by peddling not just nonsense but expensive pills, gadgets and books. People may be foolish when it comes to dieting and miracle solutions to eating problems  but it is such an emotive issue and it is so caught up with self-esteem that it starts to be easier to sympathise. If someone is described as an expert in their field then why should the public not believe it. After all, most people don’t have the time to check up on these things. They take things at face value.

The final chapters look at how the media creates health panics and then specifically the MMR scare. I have to say, at this point, that I have no children so it is easy for me to look at this issue in an emotionless way and say I’d take the chance of immunisation and possible autism (if there were a link, which there isn’t) over the risk of a measles epidemic. That was my thought all the way through when this was all over the media. It is exactly the emotion of the case that the media have played on here along with the worry of being a bad parent. Imagine the guilt you would feel, they insinuate, if you did this to your child. Now you might say, this is all well and good because the media thought they were doing the right thing. Well, if that was the case it wouldn’t have taken them long to discover the flaws in this research but it is obviously more dramatic to blow a story out of proportion then to discover there isn’t really a story at all.

As Goldacre points out, there was a cry for more research into this area at the time and there has been more research, all of which finds no link. This does not make a good headline so it will probably never be reported so parents are still unable to make a balanced decision. Because even if you are sceptical, the details they still creep in. A part of your brain says well, there must have been something in it.

It is kill or cure and nothing in between is worth reporting on. Or creating  a scare about. And now measles and mumps are returning. Perhaps we will soon be seeing scare stories about that. And the media will probably blame the very research that they used to create the MMR scare in the first place.

In the end, I think the main thing I got from this book, is the need to be always sceptical. There will always be media panics – on health, video games, violent films, too much TV etc. – and they will always sell newspapers. It is down to us as readers to be aware of the tricks they use. Think it through and look beyond what it is saying.