Dr Ben Goldacre’s collection of columns and essays, I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that, is a snackable read for anyone interested in science and how it’s used and misused in media, policy, and everyday life.
I must first admit to being a bit sucked in on this book. I picked it up in a bookstore thinking it was new – I certainly hadn’t seen it before – only to find it was released in 2014. Perhaps it was delayed in arriving on our fair shores, or I really do need new glasses.
In any case, I decided it was still worthy of inclusion on SciBooks if only to whet our appetites while we await Goldacre’s next book – which he alludes to multiple times in I think you’ll find. (Apparently it’s on evidence-based policy, building upon a Cabinet paper he co-authored advocating for randomised trials to be part of government decision-making.)
Effectively, this book is a collection of Goldacre’s Guardian columns, which he wrote from 2003 to 2011. Although there are a few easter eggs snuck in, like an essay he wrote as an undergraduate, articles published elsewhere – including the British Medical Journal – and the one column the Guardian refused to publish (it’s a goody).
So even if you were an avid reader of his column, I think you’ll still find the collection interesting. Especially as he’s grouped content together by subject and in some cases that means a two- or three-part series where he’s returned to a topic, often to respond to criticism or unfolding events. In some places he’s written small side-notes or updates, often to point out that a preliminary report he criticised never eventuate did as a peer-reviewed study. Funny that.
Many years ago, a friend gifted me a copy of Bad Science when I’d first started making noises about wanting to write about science, rather than continue doing science. That well-thumbed, oft-loaned copy hooked me onto Goldacre’s writing and general rabble-rousing. But his second book, Bad Pharma, remains sitting on my shelf despite three attempts to read it. I find it dense and long-winded – the first chapter alone is 100 pages.
Perhaps he was too close to the content, perhaps he needed an editor with a well-oiled red pen – whatever happened there, it’s a relief to read his shorter writing and be reminded that he can write. Writing with brevity takes skill and it’s interesting to see Goldacre hone that over the years of his column. In 2011, he took a six-month break from the column to write Bad Pharma and hasn’t returned to it. Lately he’s more involved in lobbying for policy change, seeing patients and teaching, being a father, and apparently has two more books in the pipeline. I hope that in compiling this book, he’s taken some writing tips from his columnist life to apply to those new books.
Goldacre calls I think you’ll find an ‘epidemiology and statistics toilet book’. It’s setup in such a way that you should be able to open it at any section and start reading. For the interests of reviewing, to make sure I actually covered the whole book, I read from start to finish. But certainly I could see myself deciding to read about bad journalism, or scientists getting sued for libel for calling out pseudo-babble, and jumping straight to the relevant section.
I can also confirm this is an excellent book for commuting – it’s easy enough to pick up and read through a couple of columns or essays on a single train ride. Fellow reading commuters will know how essential that is for easing the daily trek.
All up, I think you’ll find reminded me of the breadth of bad science, bad science reporting, bad policy, and general nonsense that plagues those of us who care about such things. Reading it all together reinforces why we need to keep pushing for a science-savvy media and media-savvy scientists. That’s not going to be easy as the media climate continues to experience tectonic change. People like Goldacre will continue to play a big part in holding government and media’s feet to the fire . I look forward to what he writes next (but please, no 100-page chapters).
Featured image: Flickr CC, PopTech.