Upon initiating the design of my Yale College Residential seminar class, Biomedical Science in the Media, I scoured the interwebs for good and bad science reporting. One of the notable sites I came across, which later served as an inspiration for this blog, was Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science website. In his blog, Dr. Goldacre discusses and discredits science that is inappropriately reported and often misconstrued in the news. Along the way he presents the facts, if they are known, and highly educated conjecture if they aren’t. Goldacre is also an active broadcaster, campaigner, medical doctor, and academic that still manages to find the time to update his blog and write books. His first book, Bad Science, has sold over 500,000 copies worldwide and just happened to be on my personal summer reading list.
This summer, I read the most recent version of Bad Science, copyright 2010 (the one with the blue cover). This edition includes a new chapter, The Doctor Will Sue You Now, which was left out of the original British edition due to ongoing litigation with the titular doctor. This chapter was one also of the most entertaining in the book because of its personal influence on Dr. Goldacre’s life in addition to the social ramifications of Dr. Matthias Rath’s vitamin campaign to end the AIDS epidemic. First, let’s be clear, I am not advocating against multivitamins as supplements to a healthy lifestyle. Although Goldacre spends a fair amount of time discussing the lack of scientific validity on the use of multivitamins and other homeopathies, daily vitamin supplements may very well promote better health in those lacking these nutritional components in their diet. However, Matthias Rath takes his multivitamin stance way, way too far with quotes like:
“Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS.”
“[Antiretroviral therapies] are not improving but rather worsening immune deficiencies and expanding the AIDS epidemic.”
“Multivitamin treatment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug.”
(All quotes attributed to Matthias Rath from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science)
Tragically, the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, was a known AIDS dissident and was all too eager to absorb this information from Rath. Furthermore, shortly thereafter, the South African government went so far as to claim that HIV was not the cause of AIDS. There is no doubt today that this political stance cost South Africa many lives as HIV continued to circulate and the progression to AIDS in the absence of antiretroviral treatment was swift. Importantly, towards his goal of rectifying bad science reporting, Goldacre also makes note of Rath’s “scientific” claims of vitamin efficacy in the battle against AIDS. This scientific reporting came in the form of paid advertisements in mainstream media outlets such at The New York Times and the Herald Tribune. Unfortunately, these claims were entirely misconstrued from a study demonstrating that fewer HIV-infected pregnant women taking vitamins were severely ill or dead compared to women in the placebo group…yay for multivitamins! The patient groups in this particular study are almost negligible; the study, in no way shape or form, compared vitamins to antiretroviral treatments. Thus, to conclude that multivitamins were better than antiretrovirals was absolutely absurd.
Another favorite science media mishap of mine, and a focus of another chapter in Bad Science, is the infamous MMR hoax. I won’t go into detail here because I plan to write more about this particular form of misinformation in other posts as the so-called “anti-vaxers” have taken over and continue to misconstrue information about vaccine safety. However, I applaud Goldacre for highlighting U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s role in perpetuating the hysteria by withholding vaccinations for his son.
I’ve always wondered why the anti-vaxers, organic Whole Foods nutters, and those opposed to the use of stem cells in research always seemed like highly educated liberals with many of the same ideals as myself. The Bad Science chapter 10 – Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things was rather enlightening in this regard. First, Goldacre discusses our inherent biases to prove what we already believe. Unfortunately a high school science education (or even one including a few college courses) does not break down these biases and rebuild them with scientific reasoning the way it does for someone with an advanced science degree. Perhaps then we should be looking to restructure basic science education. Please go read this for more insight into why I think we are failing in STEM education. One easily implemented improvement that I propose today is to add Bad Science to the mandatory reading for all graduating high school students.