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Sunday, 31 August 2008

Ben Goldacre between soft covers

The man who has spent the past few years dismembering medical quacks in his weekly column in The Guardian, Ben Goldacre, has made it into paperback. While the "Bad Science" title of his new book might provoke some to complain that it should really be "Bad Medicine," there's no doubt that Dr Goldacre, a fellow member of the ABSW, has done a service to medical journalism, even though the fake remedies, and some journalists' willingness to puff them, shows little sign of going away.

Saturday's Guardian has an extract from the book, The media’s MMR hoax. In this, Goldacre excoriates the newspapers that did much to fuel the hysteria around MMR. His line is that it isn't just, or even primarily, Dr Andrew Wakefield who deserves the blame for this descent into scientific lunacy, but the media.

Given the tradition that dog does not eat dog – that journalists do not pick holes in each others stories – we have to rely on Goldacre for this sort of thing. Journalists happily pick holes in stories over a pint, but they won't do it in print.

One area where Goldacre's account may be slightly divorced from reality is his observation that "While stories on GM food, or cloning, stood a good chance of being written by specialist science reporters, with stories on MMR their knowledge was deliberately sidelined, and 80% of the coverage was by generalist reporters." Plenty of the coverage of GM came from hacks with little understanding of the science.

This really just confirms his thesis that science goes out of the window when medical, or even science, stories get into the hands of columnists, pundits and others not versed in how science works.

Another quibble is the reference to "didactic statements from authority figures on either side of the debate". Didactic is the wrong word. Dogmatic maybe.

Still, anyone who takes potshots at The Daily Mail has to be on the right side. It will be interesting to see how many of the publications in Goldacre's sights find room to review his book.