The idea of interviewing someone such as Ben Goldacre is an interesting one, even for someone not particularly scientifically minded as myself. As the Bad Science columnist for the Guardian newspaper, he tries to tackle the problem of misreporting of science in the press (often in the pursuit of a catchy headline), as well as vehemently airing his views on what he calls “medical quackery”.
The evening in which I met him, he was giving a talk to the Union, along with Evan Harris (MP for Oxford West and Abingdon). Somewhat disappointingly, the event was more of a platform for Harris to attempt to win votes of the not undersized audience, but Goldacre did talk at length about the dangers of bad science, particularly from the point of view of public health, even if the focus was on how Harris would tackle these issues in parliament.
An exceedingly competent speaker, Goldacre held the audience terribly well with bitchy anecdote after bitchy anecdote, although one couldn’t help feeling that he was simply labouring the same “their scientific methods were flawed” point, and often there was little behind the personal attacks (which ranged from Gillian McKeith to the Blairs) more than the excuse to get a laugh from the audience.
However, when talking on issues that he most deeply cares about, Goldacre is exceptionally engaging. He talked of his outrage over the Wakefield MMR scandal, not only because of the dodgy scientific methods involved, but also because of the mistreatment of some of the children upon whom Wakefield tested. Similarly his libel battle with Matthias Rath (the vitamin supplement entrepreneur who sued following Goldacre’s criticism of Rath’s selling of vitamin supplements to AIDS sufferers, it is claimed, as an alternative to anti-retroviral medication) was touched upon, but again Goldacre’s concern seems to be primarily focussed on the devastating and unnecessary loss of life from such ignorance.
Unfortunately, as can often be the case with engaging public speakers, the charm one sees on the podium is not necessarily apparent in real life. Goldacre insisted on being interviewed in the Union bar, and whilst initially put off by the hoards of fans desperate to get a copy of his Bad Science book signed, nothing was quite as unsettling as Goldacre’s insistence on showering my face with a miasma of spittle and partially chewed peanut, surely if he was so hungry as to forget the “don’t eat and talk” etiquette he might have wanted to swallow the food?
Perhaps I am being unreasonable, but I also was not particularly impressed by his fairly lacklustre attempts to answer my first question (lacklustre in the sense that he decided to completely ignore what I had asked him), which saw him heading off on a self-aggrandising spiel about sitting on “the human conveyor belt of life experience” and having to do “Control-Alt-Delete on [his] whole life”. Seriously.
Eventually, however, I was able to pick out some sense, and so what exactly was his motivation for writing about “bad science”?
“When you start to look at a lot of what we do in medicine, it didn’t actually have a very good evidence base and the notion of evidence based practice was quite new, and that was how I got into writing about bullshit because to me bullshit like homeopathy or anti-vaccine campaigns are the easiest examples for explaining the wider issue of how you make evidence based decisions about what the appropriate thing to do is and the same skills translate into not just medical treatment but also social policy.”
Although his loathing of “quacks” is very apparent, but it is not them that seem to get the highest level of his criticism.
“We have different expectations of different groups of people; I’m not surprised that there are chancers like Gillian McKeith out there who want to brandish a non-accredited correspondence course Ph.D and come up with all kinds of funny pseudo-scientific stuff about the relationship between diet and health… but I do have high expectations of Channel 4 not to give her a platform, not to describe her in their promotional material as ‘Britain’s Leading Clinical Nutrition Specialist’, not to present her in a laboratory setting talking about molecules and blood tests. I think Channel 4 bear much more responsibility there.”
He claims, however, that his concern does not lie with the motivation of such people, but rather the methods that they use. For him it is all about the science. But to say science does not necessarily mean science in the conventional sense, but rather the idea of the scientific, evidence gathering, method.
Where else then are we not using the proper evidence based methods to our greatest advantage?
“In the case of criminal justice there is absolutely no reason why you couldn’t do randomised control trials on sentencing, for example. A judge giving out a sentence to a heroin addict who’s stealing your video recorder to get money to buy drugs, has two sentencing options, either drug testing and treatment or a custodial sentence. Nobody knows which of those two are the best, they could give half one sentence, half the other and follow them up five years later… but criminal justice is so poorly evolved that we don’t even know what our objective is when we sentence people.”
Although I have barely been with him for fifteen minutes, it soon becomes apparent that he would be far more interested in signing books than being interviewed by me. Any further attempts to ask questions are cut painfully short; my tentative question over whether students should take Berrocca (I really was grasping at straws by now) was met with a rant about “health advice in women’s magazines”.
Indeed, it is a deep shame that he is not more likeable, particularly as it appears that he really is talking sense about issues of serious magnitude. Maybe it is because he seems to take himself so seriously (if ever in need of a laugh, read his personal info on his website), or just because he is such a know-it-all. His immediate response to other viewpoints seems to be puerile ridicule; one anecdote about incompetent doctors sees them backing up their theses with the claim “but I’m an expert!”, and yet one can’t help but think that his own response, if challenged, would be to affirm that he himself was, of course, an expert.