Science is real, cont’d: Ben Goldacre on bad science

Ben Goldacre — author of the Guardian’s weekly “Bad Science” columns and the book of the same title — speaks on the dangers of pseudoscience, badly devised tests and surveys, and the very real and deadly effect bad science can have on entire suffering communities:

He’s also freely distributing online an additional chapter on the Matthias Rath case:

Matthias Rath takes us rudely outside the contained, almost academic distance of this book. For the most part we’ve been interested in the intellectual and cultural consequences of bad science, the made-up facts in national newspapers, dubious academic practices in universities, some foolish pill-peddling, and so on. But what happens if we take these sleights of hand, these pill-marketing techniques, and transplant them out of our decadent Western context into a situation where things really matter?

In an ideal world this would be only a thought experiment. AIDS is the opposite of anecdote. Twenty-five million people have died from it already, three million in the last year alone, and 500,000 of those deaths were children. In South Africa it kills 300,000 people every year: that’s eight hundred people every day, or one every two minutes. This one country has 6.3 million people who are HIV positive, including 30 per cent of all pregnant women. There are 1.2 million AIDS orphans under the age of seventeen. Most chillingly of all, this disaster has appeared suddenly, and while we were watching: in 1990, just 1 per cent of adults in South Africa were HIV positive. Ten years later, the figure had risen to 25 per cent.

It’s hard to mount an emotional response to raw numbers, but on one thing I think we would agree. If you were to walk into a situation with that much death, misery and disease, you would be very careful to make sure that you knew what you were talking about. For the reasons you are about to read, I suspect that Matthias Rath missed the mark. [...]

˜The answer to the AIDS epidemic is here,” he proclaimed. Anti-retroviral drugs were poisonous, and a conspiracy to kill patients and make money. “Stop AIDS Genocide by the Drugs Cartel said one headline. “Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS.” The answer came in the form of vitamin pills. “Multivitamin treatment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug. Multivitamins cut the risk of developing AIDS in half.” [...]

Tragically,Matthias Rath had taken these ideas to exactly the right place. Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa at the time, was well known as an “AIDS dissident”, and to international horror, while people died at the rate of one every two minutes in his country, he gave credence and support to the claims of a small band of campaigners who variously claim that AIDS does not exist, that it is not caused by HIV, that anti-retroviral medication does more harm than good, and so on.

Much more here — including a nuanced discussion of the validity of scientific conspiracy theories; the cultural idiosyncracies in various societies (including in the West) that sometimes conflict with sensible public health policies (though Goldacre goes a lot gentler on religion’s role than, say, Christopher Hitchens might); and the absolute necessity for professionals in any objective, reality-based field to engage in rigorous criticism and self-appraisal, and the apparent incapability of the alternative therapy movement to do so.

(via Pop! Tech)

Update: My other “Science is real” posts here. Revisiting the first one — with Michael Specter pushing back against science denialism — reminds me of the ongoing anti-vaccination movement, which seems to resist debunking as it draws strength from the distress and concerns of the parents of autistic kids. On his show Leonard Lopate, who seems sympathetic to the anti-vaxxers, recently grilled Dr. Paul A. Offit, author of Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All; Offit responded thoroughly and admirably, I thought. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently posted an excellent piece on the same subject.

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