Nerd outreach

Famed for his Guardian column taking apart frauds and charlatans, Ben Goldacre is all about the facts, says Jamie Kenny

Eighteenth century author, philosopher and general know-it-all Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said that the Gods themselves struggle in vain against stupidity.

Twenty-first century doctor, columnist and author Ben Goldacre tends to agree with the sentiment – maybe apart from the God bit – though he doesn’t see why you shouldn’t have fun trying.

“I’m absolutely fascinated by bullshit.”

“I have to admit that I’m absolutely fascinated by bullshit,” he tells The Big Issue in the North. “I love to play with it, take it apart and see what it’s actually made of.”

The subject of Goldacre’s fascination, alternatively known in sceptical circles as woo, quackery, pseudoscience, hype and statistrickery, is the meat and drink of his popular Bad Science column in the Guardian.

And next month, audiences in the north will be able to see him playing with his food in public as the Uncaged Monkeys sceptic-palooza comes to the Apollo in Manchester.

Uncaged Monkeys is the brainchild of comedian and writer Robin Ince, and along with Goldacre also features a line-up of pop science matinee idol Brian Cox and author Simon Singh. It’s billed as a travelling carnival “of science and wonder” but, beyond that, Goldacre is a little unsure of the details.

“I imagine it will consist of Brian Cox staring at the universe with the childlike wonder of an eternal
12 year-old, me ranting on in a deranged manner and Simon electrocuting a gherkin. Or something like that.”

Ventures of this kind tend to carry a whiff of earnest people trying to lighten the atmosphere by throwing leaden jokes around as they put you right about the fundamentals. But here is a collection of sharp, funny people talking on subjects about which they actually posses real information. That’s something of a rarity in a media-saturated environment in which everybody seems to either have something to sell or something to hide.

Guests on the Uncaged Monkeys tour will include geneticist Professor Steve Jones, graphic novel author Alan Moore and comedian Dara O’Briain, though none are scheduled for Manchester. They in turn are part of a wider repertory company of humanists in popular culture, embracing author Jon Ronson, scientist Richard Dawkins and comedians Stewart Lee, Al Murray and Charlie Brooker.

This has some links to the so-called new atheist movement, but goes beyond it. The sensibility is that there may be no God, but there’s plenty of bullshit around that needs pointing out and laughing at. Are events like Uncaged Monkeys rallying points for a new movement?

“I don’t think of myself as out there trying to convert the masses to an evidence-based point of view,” says Goldacre. “I think of it as nerd outreach, of nerd speaking to nerd. Obviously there have always been nerds around – I mean, people who actually like facts – but what’s new here is that they have more means to communicate with each other and make themselves seen and heard.”

If there is a growing nexus of nerds out there – people who are mad as hell and ready to ask pointed questions about your unwarranted assertions – then Goldacre’s Bad Science column certainly acts as a rallying point. There’s nothing a nerd likes to see more than a dubious scientific claim writhing on a slab while being slowly carved up with sharpened statistics.

“The Daily Mail divides the whole of material existence into things that cause cancer and things that prevent cancer.”

The subjects of this treatment think differently. In 2008, Goldacre was sued by vitamin entrepreneur Matthias Rath after he exposed Rath’s attempts to promote his pills to Aids sufferers in South Africa. The case was later dismissed but helped cement Goldacre’s reputation as a disemboweller of quacks. But now, he says, there’s a kind of merger in the offing between what might be called weird pharma and supposedly scientifically grounded pharmaceutical companies.
“Take Patrick Holford, who is responsible for training around half the people in Britain who call themselves nutritionists. His company is partly owned by a major pharmaceutical business.

“What you have here are two sets of multimillion dollar businesses which frequently use highly dodgy means to sell pills. The major difference is that the traditional pharmaceutical companies have been around longer, know more about actual science and are a good deal slicker about it.

“And on top of that you have the media’s own difficulties with reporting science and medicine, like the bizarre way in which the Daily Mail divides the whole of material existence into things that cause cancer and things that prevent cancer.”

In his day job, Goldacre is a doctor, which perhaps helps him keep a straight face while dealing with things like this. And besides, he says, it’s not individual eccentricity that he objects to.

“I don’t mind in the slightest if people want to take sugar pills or use homeopathy. If it makes them happy, then I’m happy for them. What does bother me is when people like health secretary Andrew Lansley says his NHS reforms are evidence based, when they clearly are not: they’re based on ideology and keeping your fingers crossed that it’ll all work out OK somehow.”

So perhaps it’s time for more of us to release our inner nerd. We’re all monkeys when you get down to it, and we have nothing to lose but our cages.

Ben Goldacre photo: Rhys Stacker

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