Appendix 7 – Advertising Goldacre

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
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,
homoeopathy. (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 Email.
“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 Centre – 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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