Ben Goldacre and the power of evidence

Famous for his Bad Science column in the Guardian, Ben Goldacre is a beloved science activist. For Ellen Rykers, he was the catalyst to get her out of the lab and into writing about science instead.

 
 Illustration by Meg Gough-Brooks

Illustration by Meg Gough-Brooks

 

Model Specimens is a monthly column that explores the role models who inspired today's scientists and artists. This month, Ellen Rykers discusses how Ben Goldacre saved her love of science and encouraged her down the science communication path.

It was 8:45pm on a weeknight, and I was hunched over my tray of cuvettes. I was in the corner of a fluorescent-lit lab and rushing to finish my assays before the building locked at 9pm. In an ideal world, I would’ve been chilling at home with my housemates and a cup of tea. But at this point, everything was pretty much the opposite of ideal. I was nearing the end of my Honours year in biochemistry — an experience riddled with failed experiments, long bouts of pipetting, and infuriating spells grappling with equipment nearly the same age as me (still running Windows 98). It left me feeling pretty disillusioned with this whole science thing.

In the midst of this Honours-induced haze of cynicism, I found Ben Goldacre. With his wit and infectious nerdy enthusiasm, Goldacre’s writing saved me from drowning in the complicated minutiae of my narrow project.

Dr Ben Goldacre is a medical doctor, an epidemiology researcher, and a science writer. He studied medicine at the University of Oxford and University College London, and in addition to practicing as a doctor, he fell into a medical research career — a role he has maintained ever since. In 2003, Goldacre began writing a weekly column for The Guardian called Bad Science, because he was “annoyed at the pseudoscientific rubbish” that permeated mainstream media. Over the next decade, the Bad Science column delved into the pointier ends of quackery, the pharmaceutical industry and evidence-based medicine. In 2008, he published his first book, also titled Bad Science, which became a bestseller.

It was this book that I picked up out of curiosity. I’d met Goldacre’s uncle, the esteemed science journalist Robyn Williams, who had mentioned Goldacre to me as an example of a tough new breed of science communicator. I picked up Bad Science on my next foray to the bookshop, and then I was hooked. I smiled and laughed out loud, and I felt a welling of pride in my chest for science, yes, science. That thing that was making my life rather unpleasant. No longer. I felt empowered and inspired.

“Like most things in the story the natural sciences can tell about the world, it’s all so beautiful, so gracefully simple, yet so rewardingly complex, so neatly connected—not to mention true—that I can’t even begin to imagine why anyone would ever want to believe some New Age ‘alternative’ nonsense instead. I would go so far as to say that even if we are all under the control of a benevolent God, and the whole of reality turns out to be down to some flaky spiritual ‘energy’ that only alternative therapists can truly harness, that’s still neither so interesting nor so graceful as the most basic stuff I was taught at school about how plants work.”
Ben Goldacre, from Bad Science

Like many undergraduate science students, I possessed a deeply-held conviction in the truth of science. Purveyors of pseudoscience frustrated me; scaremongering journalists, climate change deniers, and that “detox tea” nonsense you see on Instagram. But I hadn’t studied statistics, I’d never participated in debating, and it was tricky to wade through the morass of p-values and academic intricacies that shrouded the information I needed to inform my arguments and beliefs.

 Ben Goldacre's dead cat Hettie, who is a certified professional member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants. (Image from her  Twitter  account)

Ben Goldacre's dead cat Hettie, who is a certified professional member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants. (Image from her Twitter account)

Dissecting the evidence and getting to the core of an issue is exactly what Ben Goldacre does. He systematically cuts through the chaos, explaining science with equal parts clarity and hilarity. My favourite instance of Goldacre humour is when he successfully purchased a certified professional membership to the American Association of Nutritional Consultants — but not for himself. Rather, this membership was for his dead cat, Hettie. He did this to prove that snake-oil-peddling nutritionists such as Gillian McKeith, who tout such memberships as proof of scientific acumen, aren’t as reputable as they first appear. Brilliant.

But beyond the entertainment factor, I found an oasis of perspective. Goldacre’s approach isn’t simplistic science promotion, nor is it the brand of intellectual superiority pervading some social media channels.

“All too often, people hoping to make science accessible fall into the trap of triumphalism, presenting science as a canon, and a collection of true facts. In reality, science is about the squabble. Every fight you will read in this book … is the story of the scientific process itself: you present your idea, you present your evidence, and we all take turns to try and pull them both apart.”
– Ben Goldacre, from I Think You’ll Find It’s A Bit More Complicated Than That

Instead, Goldacre is all about a logical and level-headed interrogation of the evidence in its entirety. Take, for example, fluoridation of public water supplies. I was curious what Mr Bad Science had to say about this issue, and Goldacre did not disappoint. But what he said did surprise my pro-science bias: “The reality is that anyone making any confident statement on fluoride speaks way beyond the evidence.” Goldacre goes on to explain how the evidence we do have on water fluoridation preventing dental caries is not great quality. A subsequent systematic review from Cochrane (Goldacre’s go-to for reliable assessment of scientific studies) came to a similar conclusion: “There is very little contemporary evidence, meeting the review’s inclusion criteria, that has evaluated the effectiveness of water fluoridation for the prevention of caries.”

This was refreshing. Shunning the mysticism and conspiracy theories of alternative medicine didn’t mean I should automatically worship science with blind faith. All evidence should be subject to scrutiny. Indeed, Goldacre doesn’t only target the quacks and hacks. He’s also fiercely critical of frameworks within medicine and science. In fact, he’s devoted an entire book to ripping apart the pharmaceutical industry, titled Bad Pharma: How Medicine is Broken, and How We Can Fix It.

  Many newspapers, as Ben Goldacre puts it, have "been sifting through all the inanimate objects in the world, soberly dividing them into the ones which either cause — or cure — cancer."     Martin Deutsch/Flickr   ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Many newspapers, as Ben Goldacre puts it, have "been sifting through all the inanimate objects in the world, soberly dividing them into the ones which either cause — or cure — cancer." Martin Deutsch/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Reading this book made me angry. As a biochemistry student, my education was infused with the idea that the pharmaceutical industry was contributing to the good of humanity. But Bad Pharma revealed to me the deep and troubling issues that pervade modern medicine: cover ups, unethical practices, dodgy marketing and flawed trials, to mention a few. Goldacre has jointly founded an initiative called AllTrials, which advocates for clinical research to be open and transparent. In this way, Goldacre showed me the importance of not just championing science and evidence, but also demanding better science and evidence.

Goldacre has reached a wide audience with his trademark wit and tireless rallying against bad science. He’s made documentaries for BBC, and has delivered not one, but two TED talks. His journalism has been collated into a collection, I Think You’ll Find It’s A Bit More Complicated Than That, and he spends considerable time travelling the world to present talks on all things Bad Science. It’s awesome to see a scientist successfully fight back against the ubiquitous and sensational ‘Coffee/wine/fries/wifi/yoga mats cause cancer’ headlines.

I’m sure there are some wondering just what good unpicking dodgy ‘scientific’ claims actually achieves. Adherents to homeopathic regimes or the army of climate change contrarians are unlikely to suddenly switch allegiance on the basis of scientific evidence. Goldacre recognises this: “Why do people buy quack remedies?... I think saying they’re bamboozled is patronizing and simplistic. You’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that … I don’t think you can reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.”

  Ben Goldacre often gives free talks critiquing 'bad science,' including health scares or pseudoscience.   PopTech/Flickr   ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Ben Goldacre often gives free talks critiquing 'bad science,' including health scares or pseudoscience. PopTech/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This was something of a turning point for me – although evidence and reason are powerful tools for dismantling dodgy claims, there’s more to science communication than angry rants and throwing information at people.  When science extends beyond the lab walls, it intersects with policy and collides with human complexities in fascinating ways. Communicating science effectively is about navigating this tangle of knowledge, emotion and belief.

Galvanised by Goldacre’s coherent explanations and insightful outlook, I found the confidence to be more outspoken on science issues, and to read everything with a critical eye. I began to write more. I came to the realisation that talking about science — not just doing it in ivory towers and shiny sterile labs — is crucial. Finding a figure like Goldacre helped me see the bigger picture of scientific research and communication — with a good dash of sarcastic humour to take the edge off.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that, after Ben Goldacre helped me through the hell that was my Honours year, I returned to science research with open arms. Unfortunately, even Goldacre wasn’t quite enough to convince me to stick with a career in pipetting. Instead, his sass was the catalyst for me to pick up a pen and start writing.

Edited by Tessa Evans and Nicola McCaskill