My dad would bring the works of Stephen Jay Gould along as his holiday reading for our family weeks in France, and one day he showed me a two-page spread comparing two pictures of dots. In one, the dots were scattered about the page; in the other, they were clumped into whorls and clusters. “Which of these”, asked my dad, “do you think has a pattern?” Obviously, I cheated and looked at the captions so I could get the answer right, but all the same my first inclination was to go for one that with the twists and the spirals.
That was the wrong one: any pattern I’d seen was the result of my grasping brain seeking relationships between randomly positioned objects on the page, while the random-looking sprinkled dots on the other image had been generated with a simple rule governing the space between each point. So, I learnt two things about my judgement. First, that I was very very bad at seeing order in absences; second, that I would eagerly interpret a pattern in any number of things that fell close enough together to seem connected. And, according to the text of the essay¹ this illustrated, most people made the same mistake I did. Human beings are ferociously good strange coincidence detectors, and absolutely horrible at interpreting relationships within large quantities of information.
How horrible? Well, if you read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian, every week has a new example of either general failure to comprehend research and statistics, or cynical exploitation of this general failure. The book pulls together some of the great narratives of irrationality covered by Goldacre on his blog and for the paper: the great greasy mess of the Durham fish oils trials, the strange power of homeopathy, the depressing momentum of the MMR scare.
And what feels invigorating and entertaining as a weekly debunking takes on a more depressing character as it builds up into a bigger argument about the weakness of the media and the failure of public understanding of science. Christ, it really is dreadful. Newspapers and broadcast outlets routinely distort figures, present corporate press releases as interesting facts, and confound unlikly anecdotes with evidence – partly because the average jouralist is no better than any other average person at understanding figures, and partly because of the brutalising demands of churnalism and the economic need to pull out a striking headline.
Bad Science is an excellent tutorial in recognising the shabby stories and filtering out the nonsense from your news consumption (you’ll never read a report about nutrition without muttering, “Yes, but are they a dietitian?” to yourself). Once you’ve started disgarding the misinformation and the mangled data, though, there’s almost no science coverage left to read: some Saturdays, there’s probably only Goldacre. And even with his sharp writing and smart jokes, it’s undeniably all a bit bleak.
But you don’t just get your faith in journalism smashed out of you. You also get a high-speed course in all the mental distortions that make mistakes like mine with the dots, or Nick Cohen’s with the MMR, so easy to make. And then you get a breezy walkthrough of the ways science has developed to compensate for these crippling freaks of perception: placebo controlled trials, statistical analysis, things so sublimely elegant that once they’re explained it seems extraordinary that anyone ever got anything right without them – and so precisely counter-intuitive, it’s astonishing that people worked them out at all.
For regular Bad Science readers, a lot of the book will feel familiar. But the force and clarity gained by putting everything in the same place is great, and even if you’ve soaked up everything Goldacre’s ever written – every post, tweet and blog comment – you should still buy and read this book, especially now it comes in a new mass-market paperback with the previously-withheld-due-to-legal-proceedings Matthias Rath chapter. (If you’ve already paid out for the first edition, the extra chapter is available to download. Lovely.) There aren’t many things you can buy that will genuinely make you smarter, but by giving you a thorough education in your own – and the media’s – ignorance, this book is worth an ocean of fish oil.
¹ Look, I know it’s pretty shabby to have started out a review of Bad Science with an unsourced anecdote. I think the essay is in Bully For Brontesaurus, and if anyone’s got a copy to hand and can correct my shambling memories, I’d be powerfully grateful.