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Ben Goldacre - Bad Science (2009)

Probably needs no introduction to this audience. Goldacre is a Doctor and Journalist whose weekly columns in The Guardian educate people in the uses of science and its abuse by the media - his own website explains more than adequately what he is about and is here: www.badscience.net. (And some of us met him when he gave a talk at this year's Eastercon, which I didn't get to.) This book is a brisk trot around the scientific method, explaining how methods and results are used and abuses. It is rude about lots of people, and educational as to the methods and issues.

I read it episodically, finding it great fun in some moods and a bit of a trudge in others. On the whole, recommended as entertaining, and educational and/or refreshing as a reminder of what science is all about, and extremely valuable as an education into how the media treats science. (Though anyone who reads his columns regularly probably doesn't need to read this too.)

Entertainingly, I can provide anecdote evidence illustrating one of the problems the book deals with very nicely. Goldacre deals extensively with the issues around 'alternative' medicine, and mentions in passing that ear candling has been subject to proper methodical study, and found not to reduce ear wax. Which is presumably (at this point I am extrapolating)  why it is not available on NHS or generally mentioned within the health systems of this country as a method of dealing with excessive wax build up. So it is possible the book answers a question I first asked some years ago, and the answer is not to my liking.

I am someone who has periodic problems with my ears, particularly during hay fever season, when I get sore, itchy ears, and suffer from dizzy spells. For quite a few years during the 1990's I would go to my GP practice in summer, and they would syringe my ears, which was not pleasant but did help. Then they stopped doing that because it had been shown to be ineffective, and recommended olive oil (from the pharmacy, not the kitchen) to soften the wax so that the ear would excrete it more effectively. I tried that for a few years, but you need to drip the oil into the ears twice a day for several days, and it takes 10 minutes each time, and is messy, and besides, I found it didn't really help. Then a few years ago I discovered ear candling, which is done by soothing ladies in quiet rooms who massage your head while the candles burn, and only charge about £25 or £30 for the half hour it takes, and not only is it very pleasant, but I find afterwards that my ears are not as sore and don't itch, and I don't get dizzy any more. So I have been going every summer since, and recommending it enthusiasically to my friends (hi surliminal ).

So last week I read this passage in the book, and lifted my hand to scratch my ears again, and said sod it, and booked my appointment with the ear candler. Because I don't really care whether it works the way they say it does or not; it just seems to help with what ails me and I haven't found anything better.

Which illustrates the problems in a nutshell: science asked whether it works, found the answer is no, told me, and I went ahead anyway.

I don't think you can fit the answer to that, if there is one, on a postcard. But I don't hold any grudges against Goldacre for posing the greater question either. It does help to know what you are doing, I think.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
24th Jun, 2010 09:51 (UTC)
A lot of skeptics will readily concede that practitioners of alternative medicine often have a far better bedside manner than mainstream doctors (your harassed local GP in particular) and that this is a large part of the positive experience that enthusiasts for ear-candling / homeopathy / chiropractic and the like are getting for their money.

And to be frank I have nothing against that. My concern is when - as happened with the claims by some chiropractors that Simon Singh took issue with, and was sued over - it is suggested that such techniques can replace medically-proven therapy for serious conditions, especially for children who cannot give informed consent.
24th Jun, 2010 10:36 (UTC)
'There is no evidence for this' means 'given a randomised controlled trial in a controlled population, there's no significant benefit'. Which covers up a host of things; complex results, small changes, confounding factors, longer-term effects, and the difficulty of funding research on anything that's not patentable. And if treatment x affects everybody, but half improve and half deteriorate, then if you're in the half it works for it's still worth it for you. Understanding and caring about the scientific method requires an awareness of its limitations. I'm pretty sure that science tells me that my iPad won't make me happier, too.

Plus the bedside manner stuff -- though I found that ear candles worked pretty well for me when I just bought them for a quid each at health food shops and did it myself at home, and I have never gone to ear candling people. Probably a fire risk though, like playing with matches. (What really worked for my ears was buying an ear bulb from a chemist in the US, where they haven't been banned, and syringing out my ears in an eardrum-perforating-risking way whenver I get the slightest twinge of wax. Syringing isn't ineffective; it's just when they lowered the pressure to prevent a risk of perforation, it stopped being effective. Duh.)

Randomised controlled trials are a jolly good way to decide whether things should be funded and recommended. But you know more about you than scientists looking at populations do.

And I have mentioned elsewhere that homeopathic travel sickness pills completely cured my children's travel sickness. I'd recommend them to everybody. Yes, as a rationalist I assume this is placebo. Good stuff, that.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Caroline M

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