‘What was I talking about?’ The audience sat entranced, waiting for Ben Goldacre to remember his point after his mind had once again wandered towards more and more surprising facts about the a placebo effect. Then with a great burst of air – ‘Ah!’ – and an appreciative titter from his fans, he launched himself back on topic.
Goldacre is a medical scientist and a journalist with a regular column in The Guardian, ‘Bad Science’ tackling scientific inaccuracy in all its forms, particularly where dangerously misreported in the media. He also happens to have been a Magdalen student. He was back in Oxford promoting the new edition of his complete book, also called Bad Science, after the last one had to exclude a chapter of criticism on selling vitamin pills to AIDs sufferers in South African townships, for which he was facing a libel suit at the time. He won the case, but he and The Guardian still lost thousands of pounds in un-reclaimable damages, one of the many ways in which British libel laws are in desperate need of change, as Simon Singh explained in his talk earlier this week.
But Goldacre was not here to discuss libel; his mission was to describe ‘how quacks, media and big pharmaceutical companies gang together to sell explanations of things which are actually social and political’, and though his talk went all over the place, one left with an important warning about the medicalisation of everyday life. He argued that in the middle of the century, when amazing medical breakthroughs were happening, the realisation of the link between cancer and tobacco for instance, too much was promised to the public. Doctors and their patients thought that all sorts of cancers and other diseases would be able to be linked to a specific dietary cause and that miracle cures would continue to crop up.
Add into the mix big pharmaceutical companies, which, when you run out of treatments for the diseases that already exist, discover that you can start inventing diseases for the treatments that already exist; a media desperate to sell big medical headlines with a lack of thorough science writers; and quacks eager to make a quick buck or genuinely duped by their own products and a poor understanding of the placebo effect. What you get is a society which takes problems like children’s poor behaviour and concentration in school and, instead of dealing with it using a tried and tested method, such as the incredibly test-successful and cost-effective Surestart parenting programme, or admitting that we don’t have a clear and satisfying answer beyond trying to improve children’s diet and making them get more exercise, as a society we turn en masse to the magic fish oil pills. Every socially- and politically-caused problem is explained away as mechanical, as something we can deal with using magic medicine, instead of addressing the real underlying problems, from poverty to a lack of communication with our spouses.
This wasn’t an interview; Goldacre didn’t have notes and there wasn’t a handy power point projector to refer back to; the format was simply a man sitting and spilling his ideas out to an audience, often asking them questions, begging them to challenge him. He had a particularly endearing way of going ‘Oh, did you hear about this?’ as if he were speaking to a couple of friends over a coffee, rather fighting the noise of the rain on a marquee full to bursting with hundreds of adoring fans (and curious critics).
Goldacre is a man with a ferocious intelligence and an incredibly sharp wit and I was blown away by the passion and thoroughness with which he approaches his arguments. I was even more impressed by his likability a speaker, something which apparently flies in the face of what he is like off the podium, according to the unlucky Hector Keate who spoke to him when he visited the Union.
He littered his speech with the phrase ‘and, more interestingly than that’, and every time followed it by throwing out yet another idea, fact or joke; amazingly, every time it would be even more interesting than the last one. Sadly, one hour was simply not enough to cover all the things he wanted to talk about, and I would have happily sat and listened until the small hours of the morning. He was one of the most engaging, funny and persuasive speakers I have seen in my life, let alone at the Oxford Literary Festival.