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Bad Pharma – midway review

Ben Goldacre‘s Bad Pharma is one of the books on my ‘currently reading’ list, and I’ve mentioned it in blog posts before (here). I’m about halfway through now, after a major reading push on Sunday and some reading on my commute today, so I thought I’d say something about my impressions have been so far.

As context, I am a long-standing reader of popular science books, Scientific American, New Scientist, etc., so I’m familiar with the genre. I’ve never read any of Goldacre’s books before, though.

The structure of the book is making it tough to get through, at least for me. The book has six chapters, the first of which is 100 pages long! There are subheadings within the chapters, but these are not the same as proper chapter breaks (e.g. within a section structure). There is little, narratively, to mark the end of one coherent chunk of thinking and allow the reader to digest and ruminate before moving on. The book includes Goldacre’s recommendations for how certain problems (e.g. of missing trial data) could be ameliorated or removed, but these are not exceptionally well-placed either, so don’t bring any real air of finality to a section either. On topics this complicated and important, science writing really should be as readable as possible, so in this regard the book is disappointing. To be entirely fair, the book does provide fair warning about difficult (as in scientifically complicated) reading and makes it relatively easy for readers to skip it, should they wish, so it is not as though the book is inaccessible.

Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly support Goldacre’s efforts to bring rational critique to the pharmaceutical industry in a way that they cannot easily silence. It is clear that the way in which industry is conducting science is not in the best interests of the population it claims to serve, or the scientific community itself. My inner statistics nerd also greatly enjoyed the chapter on how trial methodology can be distorted!

Goldacre’s book has been receiving a lot of negative responses from the industry, as one might expect. I would recommend that anyone who is interested follow him on Twitter (@bengoldacre) and keep an eye on his bits in the Guardian for updates!

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