As an award-winning journalist and author of the UK bestseller Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks, Ben Goldacre is surprisingly modest about the scale of his “hobby.” Indeed, between unpicking the headlines over the latest miracle vegetable and tackling the dangerous claims of anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, it is a mystery how he finds the time for his day job as a practising doctor.
Certainly, his task to “expose bullshit in claims from Big Pharma, from quacks, from government reports, and from dodgy media scare stories” is no small undertaking. But in spite of this ferocious game plan, Goldacre appears to be driven more by fascination than a mission to get things banned. “I don’t think this stuff is evil,” he assures me. “I just think it’s really interesting.”
It is the flaunting of the term “science” that really gets Goldacre going. He is happy to let the work of psychics or religious healers pass him by — “it’s pretty obvious what’s going on,” he says.
Instead, he focuses on those who feign expertise without the evidence to back it up: the pill peddlers and quack nutritionists who invoke pseudoscientific terminology to give unmerited substance to their claims. As Goldacre puts it, “When you label yourself as ‘science’ […] then I’ll take you at your word, and I will examine the evidence for your claims.”
Indeed, Goldacre’s description of the scientific method is as impassioned as it is eccentric. “It’s like consenting intellectual S&M: people want to have their ideas challenged and criticized, because that’s what science is all about.”
It is the unwillingness to take on this sort of criticism that Goldacre finds constantly in quacks, not to mention the reporters who happily churn out the latest story on miracle cures or detox footbaths. In Goldacre’s experience, journalists are prone to having “proper, outright tantrums when you write a very gentle piece pointing out how they got something clearly and unambiguously wrong. And I think that demonstrates how unhealthy that community has become.”
While Goldacre clearly relishes the chance to pick apart rogue scientific headlines for his own intellectual pleasure (he is a self-proclaimed stats geek), when it comes to the realm of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, there is a sense that something greater is at stake. A point that he is quick to emphasize is the notable absence of scientific evidence in the way these vaccine scares play out. It appears to be specific cultural and political factors that drive the mistrust of vaccines in each individual country.
“The thing that really fascinates me is how every country […] has its own idiosyncratic, unique vaccine scare,” says Goldacre. “In 2001 in the UK, we had our big scare that the MMR [or measles, mumps, rubella] vaccine causes autism, […] but it didn’t really happen anywhere else in the world. […] Meanwhile, in France they had a huge scare that the hepatitis B vaccine causes multiple sclerosis, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the first person to tell you that.”
To Goldacre, these inconsistencies are highly revealing. “If vaccine scares were built on scientific evidence, then you would expect them to happen at the same time all around the world… but they’re not. What they are is responses to interesting local cultural, social, and political phenomena; and that’s why they respect local cultural boundaries like that.”
While this may sound like no more than an intriguing social comment, our propensity to give way to these vaccine scares has actually put global health at risk. Nowhere is this more true than in Africa, where infectious diseases remain a major killer. Goldacre cites the dismaying example of the WHO’s global polio eradication campaign in 2004, which was on the brink of success until a vaccine scare kicked off in northern Nigeria. Today, this preventable disease remains endemic in four countries, accounting for 1,604 cases of childhood paralysis in 2009. It is in these tragic circumstances that the dire consequences of scientific misinformation are most apparent.
Given the significance of his subject matter, Goldacre’s description of his book as “basically an epidemiology textbook dressed up with some bum jokes,” is somewhat self-effacing. At times, you could almost see his work as a call to arms: a rallying cry for those who are no longer willing to tolerate the “bad science” that is so rife in the media.
“If we had higher expectations and if we doggedly point out when people get stuff wrong, then I think naturally we can provoke journalists into being more reliable. And what I would really encourage people to do is, wherever you are in the world, when you see stories that are obviously wrong: start a blog, write a letter to the newspaper, […] offer to write an article for them. […] If they refuse to correct things that are genuinely and unambiguously wrong, complain to their managing editor. […] Complain to whatever the press regulator is locally. Contact another newspaper and see if you can get them to take a piece mocking the other newspaper’s piece.
“Never underestimate the power of pointing out to people the extent to which they’ve fallen short of their own stated goals. And I think, for the most part, people with integrity welcome it.”