Friday, April 23, 2010

Blogosphere Book Circle - Bad Science

Title: Bad Science   Author: Ben Godacre  Published: HarperCollinsPublishers
From the back cover: Dr Ben Goldacre dispenses fast and powerful relief from: Scaremongering journalists; pill pushing nutritionists; flaky statistics; evil pharmaceutical corporations

I was a bit daunted at the thought of reading this book.  It sounded like it was going to be a whole of science stuff that I may not understand.  Part of it was but I did read it through the whole way & came away thinking "my goodness could I have now made my son think fish oil is helping him when in fact it isn't?"  That is a scary thought & really the book was very thought provoking.  The way statistics are read & made to interpret what anyone wants them to interpret & then thrown across the world headlines like they are proven facts is also thought provoking. 

Then not days after I had finished reading the book was the headline in the Christchurch Press that the Maori Immersion school - Te Kura... achieved 100% pass rate for all three NCEA levels.  In fact I have just found this excerpt from  I have cut & pasted what the first paragraph says:

A Maori-immersion school in Christchurch has recorded a 100 per cent pass rate for all three NCEA levels.
Te Kura Whakapumau Te Reo Tuturu Ki Waitaha's five year 11s (level one), seven year 12s (level two), and two year 13s (level three) passed the 2009 National Certificate of Educational Achievement, results show.

This is the kind of statistics that the author (Ben Goldacre) was talking about.  You need to look behind the statistics & see what is missing.  In the case of the stuff article what was missing was the actual figures of how many are actually in the years classes & how many students in those years did actually sit for the NCEA.  It makes the school look good from the headline (and maybe it is) but you have to wonder whether there are more than 14 students in years 11 through 13.

I never was greatly into maths but this book did open my eyes as to how statistics can be twisted around to suit people's needs.  Then we come back to my fish oil thought.  Have I just started bringing up my children to believe the very tight & slick marketing campaigns of huge corporations.  My children know that McDonald's isn't a great meal to eat, even if a couple of meals are endorsed by Weight Watchers, but medical/vitamin/supplement campaigns are different.  As Goldacre says, just because it sounds pseudo technical it makes us think that they have to be right & that fish oil does help the brain.  I'm worried because James truely seems to believe that fish oil makes him think better.  I agreed at the beginning of the term that the fish oil did seem to help but by the end of term there really was no apparent help from it at all & I suggested to James we stop taking it.  He got very upset & he really does think that fish oil helps him.  I seem to have inadvertantly brought up a child who strongly believes in a product that actually doesn't do him any good, hopefully it doesn't do him any harm.

Yes the book certainly made me think & I have started looking at headlines differently. I found it hard going in places but then just as I was about to give up the next chapter was about something interesting & not as difficult to follow.

It is an interesting book but not one I would recommend as a light bedtime reading, your brain needs to be switched on to read it.  It has opened up my eyes to the twists & turns of statistics & for that I am thankful.  Now I just need to figure out how to deprogramme James from believing that fish oil will fix his brain.