Is there anything more annoying than an anti-vaxxer? Yes. The journalist who deliberately lied about the science to create the poor anti-vaxxer (who is normally just a well-meaning but somewhat deluded parent), thereby entrenching public mistrust in mainstream media and experts, with long term consequences in public health, a rise in conspiracy thinking… and the general state of our democracy.
Haha, I bet you thought I had a fun punchline, but instead it’s just sad. Joke’s on you!
Dr Ben Goldacre is well known for Bad Science, a pop-science book which debunks many of the major pseudo-science problems which have plagued Britain over the past twenty years. Bad Science was funny, informative, and really enraging. It was also what first introduced me to scientific skepticism, so when I saw that Dr Ben had a new book out, I picked it up right away.
Let’s get on with the review!
From now on I’m referring to I Think You’ll Find It’s A Bit More Complicated Than That as ‘this book’, because I’m sorry, that title is ridiculously long. I also low-key hate it, because it sounds exactly like the kind of thing Richard Dawkins says in a nasal voice before posting an Islamophobic twitter thread that only 12 people ever read.
🐯 I Am Disappoint
This book is not actually a proper narrative book, in the style of Bad Science and Bad Pharma. It’s actually a collection of short essays, compiled from over fifteen years of Dr Goldacre’s blog and old Guardian column. Booooooo! I thought this was a bit shann, because I could just have read his blog archive for free. However, it does state clearly on the blurb what the format of the book is, so clearly I’m an idiot and I didn’t read it properly / immediately forgot. Stupidity 1, critical thinking 0. Guess I should bow out of this review right now lmao.
At first I really didn’t like this style for the book. The mini-essays are divided by topic, such as Statistics, Bad Academia, Libel and Drugs. However, Dr Goldacre can’t ever explore an issue fully, because every column piece is rounded up short (normally with a witty punchline) to fit the Guardian’s word limits. This leaves each section feeling like a series of disjointed pithy statements which dance around a topic but never actually come to a proper conclusion.
Further in, I got used to the style and began to enjoy it. The book was great for picking up for a quick five minutes here or there and read a couple of pages before putting it back down at a clear break point, and knowing you wouldn’t feel like you had lost your thread when you decided to pick it up again.
🐯 All Of The Redonkulousness
Dr Goldacre tackles everything from the tragic to the hilarious. From AIDs denialism to homeopathy, from nutritionists who think they can cure cancer by reading people’s poo to people who believe they are allergic to wifi. Dr Goldacre trashes them all simply by pointing out the obvious, glaring errors in their thinking, and the sometimes downright ludicrous things they do or say to try and cover it up.
In Bad Science Dr Goldacre was particularly scathing of journalists who mislead the public for the sake of a headline, and that’s still the case here. A lot of the time after seeing a slightly suspect news story (‘Scientists discover Facebook causes cancer!’ ‘Ejaculating can cure the common cold!’), all it takes is for Dr Goldacre to send a few emails to various journalists, scientists or civil servants, and the whole edifice of bullshit comes crumbling down, with everyone pointing the finger of blame at each other. Dr Goldacre is a really witty writer, and some of my favourite essay titles include ‘Drink Coffee, See Dead People’ and ‘A rock of crack as big as the Ritz!’
Dr Goldacre doesn’t shy away from the heartbreaking consequences of what he’s writing about. Did you know it was a BRITISH doctor (now banned) who took money from a dodgy autism ‘charity’ and cooked up the MMR vaccination scare of the 90s? The one which led to today’s massive decline in vaccination rates amongst rich western children, and a concurrent rise in rich western children dying of previously eradicated diseases such as measles and polio? You’re welcome, world! *Rule Britannia plays in distance*
The essay that sticks with me most is ‘Methadone and Heroin: An Exercise in Medical Scepticism’ which mini-Dr Goldacre wrote when he was still a med student, and which won him a prize. You can read it here. Methadone prescribed to recovering heroin users in the UK as part of rehab. As a social worker, I’ve always been under the assumption that my service users on methadone prescriptions are being given a safer, controlled substance that’s aiding their recovery. Except, the evidence suggests that methadone is actually far more dangerous drug than heroin. People who are prescribed methadone are far more likely to relapse, become homeless, die from overdose, and take their own lives, than the general population of heroin users. What??! So why the fuck do we prescribe methadone?! Apparently, morality politics.
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ on a pogo stick.
🐯 Probably Just For The Fans
Unlike Bad Science, I don’t think this book is a particularly good introduction to skepticism/critical thinking or indeed Dr Goldacre’s work as a whole. This is again due to the format being a random assortment of mini-essays with no clear chronological order. At times I felt like articles had no point, simply because they were being wrapped up so quickly, so it wasn’t as well written as a full blown narrative. It’s more like, oh if you’re already a fan of Dr Goldacre, here’s a collection of extra stuff to add to his main narrative works.
I was also drawing a lot on my background knowledge while I read this, with the new pieces of information raised by the articles adding cherry sprinkles on top or deepening my understanding of a particular facet. For example, there’s no way the article about Dr Gillian McKeith trying to sue Dr Goldacre would have been anywhere near as funny if I didn’t already know about Dr Gillian McKeith and all her ridiculousness anyway.
Overall I did enjoy this book, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re already a fan of Dr Goldacre, since it’s more a celebration of him and his work than a ‘real’ book on the topic. If you want to dig your teeth into pseudoscience, bad journalism and critical thinking, I would definitely pick up Bad Science, or books by Carl Sagan, Simon Singh, Dr Novella or other science writers instead.
Chat with me!
Who else is a fan of Ben Goldacre’s writing? What better pop science books are out there which I should be reading instead? And