Raoul Bino, tot voor kort en heel kort decaan van Technische Natuurwetenschappen, moet een intens gelukkig mens zijn. Hij kwam vanuit de Wageningen Universiteit hierheen als opvolger van Karel Luyben, die rector magnificus werd.

Meteen kreeg hij te maken met grote tekorten en kon zijn medewerkers niet garanderen dat gedwongen ontslagen zouden kunnen uitblijven.

Na negen maanden hield hij het hier ‘redelijk onverwacht’ voor gezien. Wageningen bleef toch teveel trekken, was zijn lezing. ‘Een geweldige universiteit’, meldde hij aan het Wageningse universiteitsblad Resource toen zijn terugkeer bekend werd. “Maar er is ook veel mis.”

Aan dat alles ontsnapte hij dus met zijn terugkeer naar Wageningen. Daar kreeg hij er begin deze maand een soort bonus bij. Niet in geld, wel in waardering. Uit de medewerkersenquête in Wageningen bleek dat de waardering voor de directie van de Agrotechnology & Food Sciences Group (AFSG) was gestegen van ruim 30 naar bijna 60 procent. “De nieuwe agrofood-directeur ligt er veel beter dan de oude”, constateert Resource. En wie is die nieuwe AFSG-directeur? Inderdaad Bino. Resource concludeert dat sprake is van ‘het Bino-effect’.

The world, especially in areas concerning health and nutrition, is teeming with scientific claims: there’s omega-3 in your butter to reduce the risk of having a heart attack, there’s the anti-oxidants in your fruit juice offering anti-aging benefits, there’s turmeric (or curry as the English call it) for reducing cancer risks, and so forth.  While these are fairly well-known examples, some of the less well-known include Brain Gyms to improve blood circulation to the brain, fish-oil capsules to improve intelligence, and Aqua Detox to remove toxins from the body.

These supposedly sciency sounding claims are some of the hilarious examples of bad science cited in ‘Bad Science’, a popular science book written by science writer Ben Goldacre, who also pens a weekly science column called ‘Bad
Science’ in the UK’s Guardian newspaper and maintains the website

Scientific claims, like the ones mentioned above, are easy to spot. They often begin with ‘Research has shown that…’ or ‘Eating X increases the risk of getting Y disease’.  In his weekly columns, Goldacre evaluates the scientific evidence supporting these claims to see if it stacks up, and whether such conclusions are warranted. Those that don’t stack up earn the moniker bad science, or pseudoscience.

The book draws on Goldacre’s newspaper columns, but also goes further, enlightening the reader through illustrative and hilarious examples of bad science – the book is full of them, and they range from the dieting world and homeopathy to kinesiology and bad statistics – to expose these sciency claims, while also encouraging the reader to be critical and demanding of the evidence used to support such claims.

Amidst the debunking of the supposed health benefits of antioxidants, the quackery called homeopathy and the nonsense called Brain Gyms, the book also sends a serious message:  ‘Bad science’ has a cost to society.
One such cost is illustrated with an example from the Netherlands. The book’s bad statistics section highlights the case of Lucia de Berk, a Dutch nurse convicted of murder using statistical evidence that later turned out to be dodgy math – a case of prosecutor’s fallacy.

Living in societies where most of our science information, or rather disinformation, is obtained through media channels, there is an implicit trust in the media that they have done their job of verifying the evidence. It is a sobering thought to think about the amount of bad science being peddled in the media. In such an environment, Goldacre’s book is timely and empowering. Yes, empowering! 

‘Bad Science’ is a wonderfully well-written book that will change the way you regard and evaluate sciency sounding stories in the media. More importantly, in the long run, the book will also save you money, as you will avoid paying what Goldacre calls a ‘voluntary self-administered tax on scientific ignorance’.  Now, who would want to be in that tax bracket? 

Ben Goldacre – ‘Bad Science’, HarperCollins Publishers, April 2009, 288 pages, € 12.99.

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