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Goldacre, medical muckraker

"Ok, hands up. I hate nutritionists and phony diet marketers. I hate them because they confuse evidence and theory. I hate them because they make sweeping assertions that something will work in the real world on the basis of tenuous laboratory data. And they either do not understand that, or they do and they are being dishonest. In either case, I hate them." Thus the young physician Ben Goldacre began one of the Bad Scie

By | January 1, 2006

"Ok, hands up. I hate nutritionists and phony diet marketers. I hate them because they confuse evidence and theory. I hate them because they make sweeping assertions that something will work in the real world on the basis of tenuous laboratory data. And they either do not understand that, or they do and they are being dishonest. In either case, I hate them."

Thus the young physician Ben Goldacre began one of the Bad Science columns he writes weekly in Britain's The Guardian newspaper, one week last year. It was a fairly characteristic start to the column, which Goldacre has been penning since April 2003. The MMR vaccine fiasco had pushed him into action, he wrote in his manifesto. "My friends had always seemed perfectly rational. Now, suddenly, they were swallowing media hysteria, hook, line, and sinker. ? Many of these people were hard-line extremists, humanities graduates, who treated my reasoned arguments about evidence as if I [were] some religious zealot, a purveyor of scientism, a fool to be pitied. The time had clearly come to mount a massive counterattack."

And so he attacked, after outlining his "taxonomy of bad science." First to face the firing squad should be those who peddle shoddy science reporting. Next in line were new-age healers and fad diets, he went on, and then advertisers, with "their preposterous diagrams of molecules in little white coats. I'll pull the trigger."

Over the following weeks, Goldacre used his journalistic scalpel to cut strips off television nutritionists, spruikers of bottled water, credulous newspaper reporters, diet fads, astrologers, and of course, homeopathy. (It is important to note that he hasn't bitten the hand that feeds him by writing about The Guardian's medical reporters.) Recently, he has spent a number of column inches expressing shock at the way reporters from certain newspapers have repeatedly used a "bloke with no microbiology qualifications in an unaccredited garden shed ?laboratory'" to find supposed evidence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in UK hospitals.

In September 2004, The Guardian abandoned the weekly science supplement in which Bad Science had run. The column survived, however, and Goldacre, rather than going down with the ship, has flourished, emerging as a kind of one-man, multimedia, pseudoscience watchdog. In addition to the column, which he has contracted to do for another year, he's written Bad Science the book, due out later this year, and an upcoming BBC television program. His Web site (www.badscience.net) contains a fair number of well-populated discussion threads, plus he talks at science events, has discussions on the radio, and who knows what else.

For past columns, Goldacre scoured the media for source material; nowadays most of his columns evolve from tips he receives via E-mail. "The thing that's really heartwarming to me ? is that I've tapped into this wider community of disgruntled, nerdy scientists just like me," he says. "I almost feel like I'm a mouthpiece for a tidal wave of disgruntlement."

Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Center ? an independent organization that aims to improve the relationship between science and the people who report on it ? says Goldacre "is the champion of the scientific community, which says a lot about their frustrations with the news media." Fox says she'd like to see him take on more of the big issues within science, as he has done with recent pieces on the MMR vaccine. "Too often his critique can focus on the obscure, confining him to the margins of the newspaper."

Meanwhile, Goldacre has no intention of giving up his day job in medicine. He studied medicine at Magdalen College Oxford, graduating in 1995. He spent some time as a visiting researcher in cognitive neurosciences at the University of Milan before going on to clinical medicine at University College London. Currently he's working as a hospital physician in London. Goldacre also points out on his Web site that the British Academy funded him to do a Masters degree in Philosophy at King's, adding that "he is, as you can see, a serious [expletive]-off academic ninja." Peddlers of pseudoscience, don't say he didn't warn you.

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