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Bad science

Portrait of an articulated skeleton on a bentwood chair

A while ago, reader libraruak mentioned the book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, so I got it out of the library. It’s a book based on a guardian column of the same name, and takes apart the misrepresentation of health research, or the actual making up of ‘evidence’ around alternative medicine, and the way all of this is reported in the media in a very enjoyable way. I don’t totally agree with everything, for example he’s completely letting off the scientific establishment for the way their research is presented* and can’t quite seem to decide whether medical research is so easy to understand that anyone could if they just bothered to look, or if the problem is that there isn’t more specialist reporters who have the specialist skills necessary for understanding the research.

But I really liked the book, and was particularly interested in the bits about nutrition and diet. I’ve pulled out some quotes below. This is what I always think when I read about the latest internet diet and exercise trend: healthy living is not hard, there is no magical secret and you know it already!

Scientific knowledge – and sensible dietary advice – is free and in the public domain. Anyone can use it, understand it, sell it, or simply give it away. Most people know what constitutes a healthy diet already. If you want to make money out of it, you must make a space for yourself in the market: and to do this, you must overcomplicate it, attach your own dubious stamp.

Is there any harm in this process? Well, it’s certainly wasteful, and even in the decadent West, as we enter probably recession [this was published in 2009], it does seem peculiar to give money away for basic diet advice. But there are other hidden dangers, which are far more corrosive. The process of professionalising the obvious fosters a sense of mystery around science, and health advice, which is uneccessary and destructive. More than anything, it is disempowering. All too often this spurious privatisation of common sense is taking place in areas where we could be taking control, doing it ourselves, feeling our own potency and our ability to make sensible decisions; instead we are fostering our dependence on outside systems and pieces.


Diet has been studied very extensively, and there are some things we know with a certain degree of certainty: There is convincing evidence that a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, with natural sources of dietary fibre, avoiding obesity, moderating one’s intake of alcohol, cutting out cigarettes and taking physical exercise are protective are protective against things like heart disease and cancer.

Nutritionists don’t stop there, because they can’t: they have to manufacture complication, to justify the existence of their profession.There’s nothing very professional or proprietary about ‘eat your greens’ so they have to push things further. But unfortunately for them, the technical, confusing, overcomplicated, tinkering interventions they promote – the enzymes, the exotic berries – are very frequently not supported by convincing evidence.

Sensible dietary practices still stand. but the unjustified, unneccessary overcomplication of this basic dietary advice is, to my mind, one of the greatest crimes of the nutritionist movement.


The most important takehome message with diet and health is anyone who ever expresses anything with certainty is basically wrong, because the evidence for cause and effect in this area is almost always weak and circumstantial.


Have you read this book? What did/do you think?

* for example, he’s saying that in the paper published in the Lancet that sparked the MMR scare the methods weren’t robust and written up in such a way that you couldn’t actually tell what the experiment was. It’s not questioned why such a high profile peer reviewed journal accepts papers that aren’t good enough. And he also doesn’t consider the possibility that scientists have a vested interest in making their research difficult for non-specialists to understand, because that strengthens their position as experts.

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