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.


Penny said...

Yes the stuff about nutritionists & their marketing was very interesting to me too. The statistic thing bothers me especially since most people don't understand statistics, and are subject to the media's interpretation of things.
As for the fish oil thing - hope you can find some answer. They probably don't harm him but their expense is significant.

Irene said...

Well done on the achievement of reading the book - it looked to me like it would be heavy going.
Yes numbers are there to be massaged into whatever you want to present! I learnt that during my Diploma in Community Work training. It is absolutely amazing how many different ways statistics can be presented.
I had a long discussion with my Dr about supplements, detoxing, etc and his comment to me was 'that you are what you eat' taking these things is only making somebody else rich!

Mel said...

Really liked your review. I've just read it and will post a review soon. The NCEA results are stats that particularly bother me - high decile private school who turn away students are always going to do better than schools who take everyone. It's a matter of interpretation. I have a particular problem with de-toxing which is a load of rubbish - love Irene's comment about it. Grea treview.

Sandra said...

Katrina, I loved reading your review. Very thought provoking indeed.

Can't wait to read the book, but alas, there is a large number before me in the queue.

We read a book last year for the book circle (can't recall the title at the minute) re. the food industry which was along similar lines. E.g. how we have been lead to believe that something like margarine is better for us in comparison to butter, when it isn't at all.

I did a stats paper as part of my degree, and therefore, agree with the other commenters here too.

Anonymous said...

I am disappointed that you found it necessary to use the 100% NCEA success rate of Te Kura Whakapumau to highlight your point as it is obvious you have very limited knowledge on this school and the considerable efforts whanau and staff have put in to enable such a result.

1. Yes it is very small - the actual numbers were published alongside the article.

2. ALL of the students passed.

3. This is NOT a private school so ANYONE can attend

4. There is GREAT cause for this school to celebrate 100% result.

"Be the change you wish to see in others" Ghandi

Jenny said...

What an odd comment from someone not prepared to put his/her name or any details down! The blog was regarding statistics and how they can be used for a purpose; there was no direct criticism regarding whatever school your are defending. In fact, the blog author's big issue is considering whether her son should continue with the fish oil tablets.