Saturday, September 15, 2012

A very late review of Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science"

(Continuing this post): Sometimes I get e-mails from colleagues and students interested in reading not about visualization, infographics, or data journalism, but about the backbone of our work: the research, the science, the statistics. I guess I could recommend Babbie's classic The Practice of Social Research; you can still purchase used copies for a decent price. But Babbie's is a textbook. It's certainly very informative, but it suffers from that academic undertone that scares journalists and designers away for no good reason. Besides, even if I don't usually mind sounding like a pedant*, recommending Babbie as a starting point —or other books that I should mention eventually, for that matter, such as David Deutch's mindblowing (but ultimately flawed) latestis pretentious.

Enter Ben Goldacre. If you haven't heard of him, go watch his talk at TED, read his columns at The Guardian, and visit his blog. Follow him on Twitter. A couple of years ago, he published Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks, a book that I hold dear as a very decent intro to research methods, as odd as it may sound. I remember buying a copy of its British edition in Brazil. A cliché is pertinent here: I wasn't able to put it down.

Goldacre is a medical doctor, so he spends quite a few pages humorously debunking homeopathy and quack nutritionism —among many other voodoo things. But this is not a book just about medicine, or even just about science. It is also about how we communicate that science based on a solid understanding of what proper evidence entails. If you've never heard of "regression to the mean", "randomization", "double-blind experiments", or "cognitive biases", this is your book. If you want to learn how to tell good research from dubious research, this is your book as well. At least, it can be the first reading to help you fine-tune your bullshit detector. Bad Science reveals how much you (we) still have to learn before we can consider ourselves true journalists or information designers in this era of increasing complexity. And it is a fun glimpse indeed, as Goldacre has a keen ear for satire. Enjoy.

* "Pedant" is an epithet used sometimes by those who should spend more time reading to characterize those who do spend some time reading and care about sharing what they learn.