‘Bad Science’ – Ben Goldacre
I have just finished reading an excellent book that looks at the use of science by the pharmaceutical companies, the vitamin companies (sometimes the same!), mainstream medicine, complementary medicine and the media and I would heartily recommend it. I have learnt quite a bit – and a word of warning if you decide to read it too – you have to remember that Ben is coming from the angle of a pure scientist (especially when reading the chapter on homeopathy!) but I actually agree with a lot of what he says. He is increasingly worried about the scare mongering in our newspapers that take legitimate research and take only the parts that make the sensational stories (making it up/taking it out of context if it doesn’t fit) – the MMR and MRSA being cases in point. He also points out that in some cases the people behind the research aren’t so squeaky clean either. I found the section on the terminology used fascinating and the next time I see a headline that says that something has doubled or increased by 50% I will be very sceptical that this is statistically relevant although it took some brain stretching to really understand it!
He points out that as humans we are always looking for the quick fix/pill to solve our health problems but as always there isn’t one. We just don’t want to hear that the way to solve most of our health problems is to eat a balanced diet, exercise and de-stress!
As a kinesiologist I have been looking into doing research to make what I do more ‘serious’ – to ‘prove’ it works – over the past couple of years but something has been holding me back. After reading Ben’s book I have now decided that this is not the way for me to go. The current paradigm is for gold standard trials and anything else is treated very dismissively. I don’t believe that kinesiology or indeed many holistic therapies can be trialled in this way as it requires conditions that are impossible for us to achieve eg: trials containing 100s of people over a long period of time and that all participants receive the same treatment. I can test a 100 people with headaches – they are not going to all want the same treatment I can guarantee you! Until the goalposts are moved and a new and better style of research gains the approval of the mainstream I feel most current trials are wasted energy. Another excellent book on this subject is “The Whole Story” by Tony Murcott.
He also talks about the placebo effect which is seen by the mainstream scientific community as a problem to be eradicated and that holistic therapies only work because of this. However, he goes on to say that they are probably missing a trick as this effect is very powerful – he calls it a potent universal force (could that be the one we talk about?!!) – which should be investigated more with the aim of harnessing it as a potential treatment/enhancing current treatment. He also says that it is culturally specific which I found very interesting. And that the belief of another human (eg: the doctor) can affect the efficacy of a drug even when they don’t tell the recipient of that belief!
His main concern with our world seems to be two-fold. First that we are peddling pills in the same way as the drug companies (albeit ours are sugar pills and vitamin pills) that have no serious scientific research proving their efficacy (apparently vitamin companies can be as bad as the drug companies in manipulating their research!) and that in doing so we are helping to continue the belief that our problems can be solved with a quick fix/pill. This is an interesting thought.
And second that we are trying to use science to ‘prove’ that what we do works. According to him most of the trials done to date that were properly conducted have been ambiguous at best. The ones that were positive have some major flaws.
Interestingly he has no beef with things like Reiki which doesn’t try to prove itself scientifically.
His book has made me think more about how I work and the intention and focus behind the treatments. Engaging clients more to enhance the placebo effect can only be of benefit to all concerned and I’ve just ordered another book he recommended by Daniel Moerman on this.
For one I am happy to tell my clients that I have no idea how what I do works, that current science cannot prove how it works but maybe in the future that will change, that it certainly doesn’t work for everyone, but that it does for a remarkable number of clients who walk through my door and I am privileged to be part of that journey with them. If what I do only works because of the placebo effect then long live the placebo effect! I find that people don’t particularly care what makes them better – only that they do get better with the minimum of side effects – and with kinesiology they do!
If you read this book I would love to hear your thoughts