It’s rare for a book to be this informative and this entertaining. Ben Goldacre is a physician and academic who also happens to be a great and funny writer. For years he wrote a column on medicine and science for the Guardian UK. He’s currently a fellow of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Disease. So when he writes about medicine and medical research, he’s coming from the point of view of someone who has trained as a doctor and is actively involved in the field of medical research. How totally refreshing, right? He’s not a bullshit literature PhD pretending to be a medical doctor, he’s not an actress, he’s not an MD who makes millions selling supplements. He’s a guy who is very well-educated about a particular subject who makes every effort to clarify that subject for people who are not as well-educated in it. I mean, I know. It’s a totally revolutionary approach. I’ll let that sink into your brain while I write about myself for a paragraph.
I have CFS/ME (chronic fatigue syndrome). I’ve had it for five years this May. When I say I’ve had it for five years this May, I mean that I’ve been completely disabled by CFS/ME for almost five years. The truth is, I knew there was something wrong for years before that, and struggled to figure out what was wrong with me while juggling a full life until I collapsed completely and was unable to have anything even resembling a life. (At least, not as most people would define one. I won’t go into the tragic details.) I’m not telling you this story to get your pity or whatever. I’m telling you this in order to give you the background to understand that I have read a shit-ton of books about health. I’ve been to every kind of medical specialist and alternative practitioner you can name. I consider myself a reasonable, rational person but over the years I’ve tried a lot of things out of desperation. I’ve *almost* done it all. (I say almost because there were stones I left unturned. For instance, I never voluntarily got a parasite.) Because the alternative was to pretty much do nothing (there’s no meaningful treatment option for CFS/ME* other than the common sense plan of eating healthily, getting enough sleep and exercising – although obviously, this last activity is intensely problematic). Trying, say, a new dietary plan for 3-6 months at a time was almost like a hobby, a thing I could do to feel as if I was actively working towards healing, a thing to do while I was also eating lots of vegetables (and, depending on the diet, some fruit), exercising as much as I possibly could and, you know, sleeping. (Sleep is surprisingly problematic for CFS/ME patients.) Each time I would start a new eating plan (for instance: vegan and paleo), I would usually read a very science-y seeming book on the topic (The China Study, Deep Nutrition) and I would ignore the part of my brain that would flag all the inconsistencies in the apparently scientific case put forward by the author of the book because I really wanted to believe that by cutting out meat or grains I would miraculously get better. At some point, though, I got tired of the mental gymnastics. I do, after all, have a disease which has fatigue right in its name. It’s a lot of mental effort to believe in something and to hold on to that belief in the face of conflicting evidence. Over the years, I’ve often felt as though in order to deal with my illness, I need to get my own medical degree, learn statistics and learn how to read articles on PubMed. If only there was some other way. Some source of information that can provide me with context that my doctor is unwilling or unable to provide. If only there were people who had medical degrees and backgrounds in analyzing medical research who would assess health reportage and write about it. You know, people who don’t really have anything to sell (such as supplements). People who know better than to cherry pick at research (which means to triumphantly pounce on anything that seems to support your theories and ignore anything which does not). Well Ben Goldacre is one of those people. I found him because I found this website, Science-Based Medicine (percent of SBM writers who have gone to medical school: 100%, percent of SBM writers who also sell/endorse supplements: 0%).
If you are looking for a book that will help help you develop your critical faculties in assessing science and health reporting, if you are looking for clear thinking and accessible prose, then Ben Goldacre is a wonderful place to start. The fact that he manages to do all of the above while not taking himself too seriously and being witty is just the whipped cream and hot chocolate topping on this delicious yet miraculously healthy sundae of a popular science book. (Wow, that metaphor got REALLY murky, didn’t it?)
*EDIT: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Graded Exercise Therapy are the treatment options which have received the most validation by research, however I live in rural Idaho and have not had access to either.