bad science

I just finished reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and I feel kind of duped.  Well no, I actually just feel silly for not thinking about the many points he brings up that have to do with nutritional and pharmacological research, or lack thereof, how information is presented in the media, and the far-reaching consequences of not thinking critically about the statistics, numbers, and arguments presented to us on a regular basis.

I will say right away, if, like me, you have ever been interested in alternative medicine, this book may make you initially a little angry.  Mainly because it challenges many of the assumptions and arguments used in alternative health fields (especially nutrition) to justify the forms of “treatment” they prescribe.  If you are a believer of homeopathy, I dare you to read this book with an open mind and tell me that you are still a believer once done.  Or at the very least, that your fundamental beliefs in the practice have not been shaken.

The field of nutrition is another area Goldacre focuses on, and with good reason.  I am sure we are all aware that over the past few years there seems to have been a very fast increase in the amount of “stuff” we hear about what we should eat and what we should avoid.  This herb is good for this condition.  We should be eating antioxidants until we can’t eat any more.  This berry, when added to your diet, will change your life.  And so on.  It is a lot of information, which often contradicts other information.  As someone who has looked at the potential benefits of diet on rheumatoid arthritis, I can be the first to say that there is a lot of information out there and it is easy to feel overwhelmed.  In all seriousness I have often thought, “just how can I possibly get all of this “healing” food into my body every day unless I am eating and drinking juices around the clock?”

Reading this book made me realize that I often accepted a lot of what I read because it seemed to make sense on some intuitive level (bad science right there!) or because it just seemed, well, why wouldn’t it be true?  The problem, as Goldacre describes, is that theories in this modern popular nutrition field are often assumptions, extrapolations, and sometimes pure nonsense based often, but not always, on existing sound scientific/biological information.  The bottom line is that very few of these newer theories have been scientifically tested, and those that have, more often than not, do not show the amazing positive health benefits that we have been told to expect.  As he states, the bottom overarching slogan for this book could be “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

Here is an example that hit close to home.  I read somewhere about a year ago that a compound found in the spice turmeric, called curcumin, is highly effective for decreasing inflammation.  As someone with RA, anything that claims to help with inflammation is something I would like to know more about.  I did some more “research” on the Internet and sure enough, there are blogs out there that say turmeric is great for dealing with inflammation. I have since seen this “theory” espoused in many popular nutrition books.  And so, without really thinking about it, I accepted this as fact and started making homemade chai out of turmeric, buying capsules of the spice, and for a period of time sprinkling it on a lot of my food.  I should add that I have also done similar things with ginger, cayenne pepper, and who knows what else.

Here is an excerpt from the book,

And what about turmeric, which we were talking about before I tried to show you the entire world of theoretical research in this tiny grain of spice?  Well, yes, there is some evidence that curcumin, a chemical in turmeric, is highly biologically active, in all kinds of different ways, on all kinds of different systems (there are also theoretical grounds for believing that it may be carcinogenic, mind you).  It’s certainly a valid target for research.

But for the claim that we should ear more curry in order to get more of it, that “recent research” has shown it is “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially those of the prostate,” you might want to step back and put the theoretical claims in the context of your body.  Very little of the curcumin you eat is absorbed.  You have to eat a few grams of it to reach significant detectable levels, but to get a few grams of curcumin, you’d have to eat one hundred grams of turmeric, and good luck with that.  Between research and recipe, there’s a lot more to think about that the nutritionists might tell you.

Hmmmmm…well when you say it like that…

I want to be clear on Goldacre’s behalf.  He is not arguing that all alternative medicine is bogus, that nutritionists are a bunch of liars (well he may actually be saying something close to that), that big pharma is innocent of any errors of deliberate “fudging” of data.  No, what he is arguing for is good science, responsible reporting by the media (one only needs to read his chapter on the ridiculous circus of the completely unreal supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism to see the far reaching consequences of irresponsible media reporting), and a critical mind in the consumer of this information.  As he states, people are not stupid.  When they are presented with clear information, in a sensible way, most people can figure out what it means and what, if anything, they need to do about it, but until (if ever), we get to the point of the mainstream media thinking before they publish and not relying on at best exaggerated, at worst untrue, claims about the “latest research” I think we, as consumers of this information, need to put on our thinking caps a bit more often and really question where the numbers and findings are coming from.  A good place to start to see the difference between good and bad science is this book.



Author’s site

TED talk by Ben Goldacre