Goldacre: 'fabulous hair', says source.
But happily ignorant of a number of intriguing snippets of information regarding the good doctor, I was able to enjoy the first 292 pages on an entirely intellectual, rather than visceral, level. Which is good, because Ben Goldacre's entire professional raison d'être is to teach us to use our brains, not our emotions, to assess the science and health stories we read in the media.
I realise I'm probably preaching to the converted here, what with the vast majority of this blog's readers being Guardian-reading (and even Guardian-writing) types who are well aware of Dr Ben's Bad Science column and his apparently single-minded dedication to debunking all those lurid and ill-researched newspaper stories about health scares, miracle cures, fad diets and all the rest.
Anyone who saw yesterday's Guardian front-page story, for example, will know that Dr Ben isn't afraid to explain exactly why so many 'leading' nutritionists and vitamin-supplement advocates are quacks, frauds and charlatans of the worst sort, even if doing so lands him and the Guardian in court.
His book, then, is all about how lifestyle and consumer journalists lack the scientific knowledge and analytical skills to 'see through' pseudo-scientific claims about health risks - such as the supposed 'link' between the MMR jab and autism - with the result that newspapers are full of badly reported, badly researched and poorly-backed-up scare stories that appeal to readers' emotions rather than to their reason.
On a general level, the book not only provides the reader with a battery of critical tools with which to deconstruct and interrogate these so-called news stories - and learning to read between the lines of media stories, as far as I'm concerned, is an essential life skill and one I'll be teaching the Blue Kitten the minute she demonstrates any kind of mastery of the art of reading - but it's also very, very scathing and frequently very, very funny.
For me personally, having worked for several years in PR, I also found a lot of it uncomfortably close to home. Because, as Dr Ben rightly points out, the reason these scare stories end up in the media in the first place is that there's a PR machine behind them, creating sensationalist press releases from 'research' that is at best deeply flawed and at worst completely made up. The aim of this PR machine, usually, is to promote some vitamin supplement, specialist diet or homeopathic remedy as being better than anything suggested by mainstream medicine, the pharmaceutical industry or your own common sense.
Thankfully I've never done PR for any product that actually had a direct effect on life and death - unlike the vitamin supplements promoted by Matthias Rath as being more effective against Aids than anti-retroviral drugs - but I'm uncomfortably familiar with the process by which a press release purporting to be about a piece of research ends up being widely reported by gullible, inexperienced or just plain busy journalists.
I've lost count of the number of press releases I've seen that announce 'important research findings' without mentioning what the research consisted of, how it was conducted, how many people were studied, or
This is because very often the research has been conducted by a PR person emailing a bunch of their friends with a poorly-designed survey, and reporting the results as percentages rather than absolute numbers. '65% of Britons have been victims of identity theft' sounds like a good story. But if you only survey 14 people - and only people that you know - then the fact that nine of them have suffered identity theft means nothing. You might have consciously selected people you know to have been victims, for example. Or your friends might consist predominantly of people who spend a lot of time divulging personal information on Facebook, and are therefore pre-disposed to having their personal details stolen.
What amazes me more than the utter lack of any kind of intellectual rigour involved in this PR wankery, though, is the willingness of journalists to report it as bona fide fact. I know that editorial staffs are forever being cut down, and that most journalists don't have time to investigate every story properly. But I don't think there's any excuse for uncritically publishing meaningless statistics as if they were hard evidence of some supposed trend**. It only encourages PR people to put even less effort into their so-called surveys, resulting in an ever-diminishing respect for factual accuracy and an entire newspaper-reading public who think they're being informed, but are actually being fed a diet of made-up rubbish dressed up as fact.
Which, when it's made-up rubbish about identity theft, may not be so bad, but when newspapers report that MMR causes autism, or that vitamin C can reverse the spread of Aids, is not only irresponsible but actively evil.
This post was brought to you by raspberry leaf tea, chocolate Hobnobs, and the continued non-appearance of the Blue Kitten.
* Naturally we're far too classy for kiss and tell on this blog, but I will just say that the phrase 'a bit of public frottage on Greek Street' remains indelibly etched in my mind.
** I read the other day, for example, that according to the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission, only 13.6% of national newspaper editors are female, compared with 17.4% a year ago. Along with many other media outlets, the Guardian - Ben Goldacre's own paper - interprets these figures as illustrative of how the number of women in senior management roles is receding.
Now I'm prepared to believe that the EHRC has ample quantitative evidence for the return of the glass ceiling, but this claim in particular is statistically invalid and can't be used as evidence of anything. There are only around 25 national newspapers in the UK. This means that the EHRC's stats show that there's one fewer female editor now than there was a year ago. When your so-called stats are dictated by the actions of one single person, they aren't representative of a national trend, sorry EHRC.