Reading challenge book No. x – A non-fiction book
I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that, by Ben Goldacre
Amazon link here
I’m quite a big Ben Goldacre fan. I never read his Guardian column while it was being published as I was reading The Times back then, but I really enjoyed Big Pharma (while being horrified, obviously). Some of his insights about drug testing were probably pretty obvious – for example, that it’s more useful for physicians that drugs under development are tested for effectiveness against rival drugs, rather than placebos – but were eye-opening to me as they were issues that I hadn’t really thought about before. I like to think that I have a reasonably critical mindset, but Big Pharma sharpened my focus, which can only be a good thing.
On a side-note, I vaguely remember school science having more of a fact and rule focus rather than necessarily teaching the scientific method. Maybe that’s unfair to my teachers, maybe it’s something I don’t remember because it was taught by not examined, but that doesn’t necessarily seem like the best focus to me.
I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that (hence to be referred to as Complicated) is a collection of some of Ben Goldacre’s columns from the Guardian that were published over roughly five years (I think, my copy of the book is at home). In these columns he applies a critical, scientific mindset to newly-published research and articles that (badly) summarise said research. Papers which came in for significant criticism included The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Independent. (From memory, The Times wasn’t really referred to. Good for them.)
Complicated is arranged into sections by topic, which was helpful for locating articles you might find interesting, particularly for those readers adopting a ‘dipping in’ approach. The individual articles are very entertaining (yes, nerd alert sounding), but due to the original column’s nature and word limit there is repetition of the same overall theme without a deeper dive or significant continuity between topics. As such, this is probably better for dipping into than sitting down and reading cover to cover. (I did some of the latter but I don’t remember much of the detail, just the overriding concepts). A lavatory book, perhaps?
I think that this book is great for exposing people to just how bad scientific reporting can be, and I would strongly recommend it for people who tend to read the aforementioned publications and quote them verbatim. It’s the kind of thing I can imagine giving to a not-so-scientifically-inclined relative, with the hope of opening their eyes a little. One of my key take-aways is basically not to believe any science that I read in the papers. (Depressing, yes. But worth knowing).
One of my favourite columns came from 2009, and can be found here.
In a week where our dear Daily Mail ran How Using Facebook Could Raise Your Risk of Cancer, I will exercise some self-control, and write about drugs instead. “Seven hundred British troops seized four Taliban narcotics factories containing £50m of drugs,” said the Guardian on Wednesday. “Troops recovered more than 400kg [882lb] of raw opium in one drug factory and nearly 800kg of heroin in another.” Lordy, that is good.
Spoiler, it wasn’t worth £50m. Ben Goldacre estimates the worth of the raw opium seized to the Taliban (no heroin was seized, incidentally) was actually $126k. That’s a fairly significant variance. But hey, that’s still a super blow to the forces of bad guys. Put your hands together for Team Britain!