Ben Goldacre: Bad Science

Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre is a fast talker. He has to be. He has so many examples of bad science to share.

Goldacre is a British physician and author of the weekly”Bad Science” column in the Guardian as well as of Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks. He takes on an impressive range of “enemies of reason,” a list that includes sloppy journalists, creationists, politicians that play fast and loose with the truth, pharmaceutical companies that design faulty drug trials, and a media that promotes pseudoscience. For example, suggesting that certain foods or objects can cause or cure diseases like cancer muddles the distinction between facts and beliefs. It can also be downright dangerous.

Goldacre shares the story of Matthias Rath, a German doctor who condemned anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV and AIDS and instead offered his own vitamins to a gullible South African public. Rath not only grew rich on his scheme, his efforts also helped validate claims by “HIV denialists” who suggest that the virus was not the cause of AIDS, says Goldacre. This view had critical support within the South African government, and paved the way for the country to refuse necessary drug treatment to citizens. According to Goldacre, this “dumb idea” cost more than 300,000 South Africans their lives between 2002-2005.

What Goldacre finds just as frustrating is how few people have stepped forward to denounce Rath and his activities. He notes that almost no one in the alternative therapy community has spoken out. That might have something to do with Rath’s willingness to defend himself in court. When Goldacre wrote about him in his Bad Science column, the vitamin salesmen sued Goldacre and the Guardian for libel. (Rath has since dropped his suit and ordered to pay damages.)

The HIV story has terrible consequences. It reveals how difficult it is to adequately explain the complexities of science to the general public. It also suggests how difficult it is for many people to accept scientific inquiry as the dominant way to understand the world, often choosing instead to rely on anecdotal evidence and untested claims. Bad science, says Goldacre, is something we do to ourselves.

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