One of my Christmas presents this year was a great little paperback titled 'Bad Science', written by a chap named Ben Goldacre. He's a doctor (of medicine) and writes the Bad Science column in the British daily newspaper The Guardian.
The book is well written, laugh out loud funny and confronts a number of myths created by pseudo-science groups (including the complementary medicine and nutrition industries) and perpetuated by a credulous, uninformed or just lazy mainstream media.
Among other things, it lays to rest furphies such as the supposed link between autism and the MMR (Measles Mumps and Rubella) vaccination, or scare stories about mercury amalgam fillings. In neither case was there a scientific basis for the scares, but that didn't prevent well-meaning (for the most part) activists and a compliant media from beating them up and scaring the living daylights out of countless parents.
Author Ben Goldacre's basic thesis is that there's a good reason why the scientific method has developed over the years. His acid test of a new medical 'scare' story or 'miracle' cure is simple: if you read about it in a newspaper or magazine, or saw something about it on TV, then you should be able to track down a peer-reviewed scientific paper setting out the basis for the claim. If you can't, then be very wary because the story was probably fed to the media by a snake oil salesman of some kind.
If somebody isn't prepared to subject his scientific research to peer review then the research probably wasn't scientific in the first place, and therefore the effect of the snake oil is probably largely psychosomatic. In discussing scientific method and the conduct and reporting of research, Goldacre even manages to make statistics and the placebo effect sound interesting.
On the issue of MMR the scientific evidence, based on properly conducted research by a variety of individuals and bodies working in isolation from each other across the world, is that there is absolutely no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. That hasn't been widely reported, however, and the lingering fear of vaccination created by a lengthy and sometimes hysterical campaign by a number of British newspapers and TV channels is such that the incidence of Mumps and Measles in the UK has risen.
Ben Goldacre proves that science isn't boring: people just don't realise the part it has played in shaping our lives and abandon rational analysis when confronted with scare stories or improbably good news.
That said, I'm perfectly happy to conduct my own long term research to validate claims that red wine and dark chocolate deliver both subjective and objective health benefits when taken in therapeutic doses...
Go on, buy this book - you'll enjoy it!
*Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre, 4th Estate, London 2008