Bad cop

On the joys of science quackery: an interview with the Guardian's Ben Goldacre

4 September 2005

What's spectacularly irritating is when people know so little that they are incapable of assaying their own incompetence.

Ben Goldacre is a medical doctor and a science writer for the Guardian. His essays on bad science, which expose spurious scientific claims, has a large readership. recently caught up with Goldacre to learn more about the man behind the mission.

Have you always been infuriated by bad science? How did you get into the hobby of publicizing it?

I think being a bit of a hippy (I'm, er 31, but you know what I mean) and also scienceboy, which meant that I got into more arguments than most about this kind of stuff, like: why should being into the beauty and all-round improbable amazingness of the natural world also involve believing less interesting made-up stuff about it? The Enlightenment would have fitted the sideburns and the optimistic rationality a lot better. They thought they could solve all the problems of the world back then, just by sitting down and thinking really clearly about it.

More than that, I suppose, like most people you'd be friends with, I'm pretty suspicious of anyone who believes in any kind of superstitious nonsense and acts on it, and that goes all the way from Islamism and Christian fundamentalism, through to New Age nonsense. It’s such an old position it might sound trite or childish, but acting on culturally or politically expedient made-up stuff, and not questioning ideas, not looking for evidence, is just dangerous.

Also generally I'm just picky.

Which instance of pseudoscience makes you the most angry?

I can’t say I feel angry about the consumer stuff – ripping stupid people off is fine by me; you could call it a voluntary self-administered tax on ignorance, and most of the time I’m sure the punters love it either way. It’s the people who promote the public misunderstanding of science in mass media outlets that make me the closest I’d get to angry. Oh, and people who really believe they’re right and you’re wrong, despite knowing next to nothing about what they’re talking about. I’m thinking particularly about arguments I’ve had at parties about MMR with tabloid journalists.

Can you speculate why the same types of people who are adverse to ‘good’ science (e.g. the MMR vaccine) tend to be so quick to embrace ‘bad science’ (e.g. friendly bacteria; aromatherapy)? What is the link between fearing science and possessing boundless credulity?

A lack of knowledge combined with an arrogant dismissal of the need to get any. A colossal sense of entitlement about being able to come to an ‘opinion’ coupled with a belief that it should also be treated as being of some worth.

Do you feel that people are becoming more gullible about pseudoscience, or was it ever thus? If pseudoscience is on the rise, why do you think this is?

Definitely on the rise, because the science behind everyday stuff is going slightly out of the reach of the stuff you learnt about science in school. Up until a couple of decades ago you could understand how your car worked from A-level chemistry and physics; the same went for your kitchen radio, and all the way up to most major industries. That’s not true any more. So there's a sense that all this technology is a bit out of your understanding and control, a bit inconceivable, maybe a bit closer to magic, and that’s the case even if you do know a fair bit of science. Heaven help you if you don't.

Imagine you are penning ‘Bad Science’ in Victorian times. What might be a few pet peeves worth mentioning?

It would have been much more difficult to write ‘Bad Science’ back then because, for example, the evidence base for mainstream medicine was quite thin, so the definition of quackery would have been much more of a cultural one, based on ‘outsiders’, and hence less interesting.

This, incidentally, is something that most of the humanities graduates who study the history of quackery don’t seem to have the intellectual horsepower to grasp: they think that’s the way people like me, for example, would still define quackery: as outsiders in a social power dynamic. Morons like this deserve nothing but our contempt.

You told a recent Spiked survey that you wished people understood the British epidemiologist Austin Bradford Hill's ‘criteria for causation’. (Editor’s note: Hill pioneered the randomized clinical trial and co-discovered the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.) Does this sort of thing get taught in school?

It doesn’t get taught to kids and it should be. John Durant's work from the early 90s and other major quantitative analyses of the portrayal of science in the media have shown that science, in the media, in terms of the kinds of stories covered, is health. Things like the Bradford hill criteria – how to assess the validity and reliability and usefulness of evidence – are exactly what you’d need to be taught to parse the information on offer when you grow up, especially as it's given out so misleadingly and incompetently by the media.

Do you feel any affinity with Koch, the father of the Germ Theory of Disease? (I’ve always imagined him getting very irate when people assumed diseases were caused by things without actually proving it.)

It’s nice to think of the guys from the top ten having heated arguments at parties; I don’t know if they did. Anyway, it’s annoying to anyone when people bang on and insist on disagreeing with you groundlessly. having said that, I have no idea what the evidence looked like when Koch (it’s flattering and ridiculous to put me in the same bed incidentally) was having his arguments.

Also, remember that I’m only ever writing about people in the media who've got very, very basic issues of science or interpretation of a paper wrong – nothing too cutting edge. But yes, irate...again, what's spectacularly irritating is when people know so little that they are incapable of assaying their own incompetence.

Do you think Edward Jenner, who inoculated a small child against smallpox without it being tested, was a hero or rather, a breathtakingly careless practitioner who made dangerous assumptions?

I quite enjoy reading books about the blokes who tried that kind of thing and got it wrong.

Who is your favorite scientists (living or dead) and why?

Darwin rules every time. Natural selection has the greatest explanatory power of any one idea: you can state it in a sentence and it goes a long way to explaining the complexity of the living world around you. Also, his last book wasn't some idle philosophical nonsense on politics or consciousness like so many ‘star’ scientists: it was a really trudging, carefully researched treatise on snails or mould or something, so boring and worthy I can't even remember. He is therefore the man.

Could pseudoscientific fraud be countered by better science education?

Maybe a bit. And maybe by better information. But I think it will always happen and I’m grateful for it. Shooting down bad science is good, clean, instructive fun, and I’m sure you'd get a lot more kids interested in science if they thought it involved fighting.

What about the role of government in policing spurious claims – do you think they are doing a good job? What could be done to improve the dissemination of accurate information and the suppression of ill-founded claims?

The trading standards people aren't too interested. The Advertising Standards Authority are, but they’re toothless. I know I keep harping back to them, but it is the flaky humanities graduates in the media unquestioningly peddling this stuff that is the problem, and I firmly believe that the only way to get them is through public mockery.

Will George Bush ever 'believe' in science? Do you think politicians' faith in scientists has eroded in recent times?

Of course it hasn’t, not when technology offers so much. Whatever goes on in Bush's head has little to do with politics, I’m sure.

Do you believe in the effectiveness of acupuncture? If so, do you predict that scientists will discover a molecular mechanism to explain it?

I think sticking needles anywhere in people obviously has an effect on the body and it might be beneficial. As for the specific cultural and ceremonial trappings of acupuncture, like all the other mumbo jumbo that surrounds alternative medicine to boost the placebo effect, that’s what Plato would have called a ‘noble myth’.

If you had been the Editor-in-Chief of Nature magazine when Benveniste’s infamous manuscript (appearing to prove the efficacy of homeopathic dilution and ‘water memory’) came back into the office with positive peer review reports, would you have published it?

I think they did exactly the right thing with their visit to his lab.

You are infamous yourself for your high-profile tussle with the nutritionist Gillian McKeith. What was it about her that seemed to be the last straw (as there are thousands of Gillian McKeiths out there)?

She said that a seed contains all the nutritional energy necessary to make a fully grown plant; regardless of what ‘school’ of ‘nutrition’ you claim to subscribe to, you've got to understand basic issues of calories, where they come from, how they're created and used. That seemed to me to be incompatible with the seeds quote, not to mention her funny ideas about chlorophyll oxygenating your blood, for example.

When you walk into a reputable pharmacy like Boots and see an entire section devoted to things like copper bracelets to ward off arthritis and Bach’s Rescue Remedy to spirit away depression, how do you feel?

Busy and excited.

Many of today’s drugs are derived from folk medicine – aspirin from willow bark, for example, or taxol from the yew tree. Do you see a role for the systematic testing of herbal remedies that appear again and again across different cultures?

Test everything you want, always. It's easy. Plenty of research is done by junior doctors working 60 hours a week, in their spare time. Put your back into it, hippies...

What is your favorite film or novel featuring a scientist character and why?

The film Outbreak, because the lead character is a gun-toting public health physician. Also I think there's SPSS running on a computer screen somewhere in it.

What do you think is the biggest medical danger facing us in the present day?

Food, too much or too little, depending on who ‘us’ is.

Will people always believe in bad science, or will one day Enlightenment hit us all over the head and make us sensible?

We will win.

Read Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science' essays here.