Goldacre galore & R.Science

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Ben Goldacre’s attacks on pseudoscience in his books Bad Science and Bad Pharma have made him one of the UK’s most popular science writers. A recent special edition podcast from the Therapeutics Education Collaboration (TEC), who describe themselves as “Medication Mythbusters”, included the doctor, journalist, author and all-round nerdy entertainer expressing his views on evidence-based medicine.

His Bad Science column in the Guardian was the start point for both of Ben’s books. The new book, Bad Pharma, is on a more serious subject than its predecessor Bad Science and unrestrainedly attacks one of the world’s largest industries. The stories discussed on the TEC podcast spotlights how pharmaceutical companies withhold information to deliberately deceive both doctors and patients alike – it’s oddly horrifying and fascinating in equal measures.

The discussion very much followed the pattern of the stories in Bad Pharma. The book exposes a world where ethics are overlooked and drug trial data is left unpublished and hidden. In the one hour and twenty minute podcast there is Goldacre galore but perhaps his slightly wacky style for that long is too much?

Goldacre is an interesting character: his TED talk from 2011 – which lasts only fourteen minutes – gives a short overview of the theme of his various publications. It’s actually a good introduction to the TEC podcast because, although 80 minutes of anyone could be seen by some as exhaustive, Goldacre’s easy-to-read and conversational writing style makes for just as easy listening, and the podcast well worth the time.

In contrast, the Royal Society podcast R.Science is formulaic and unengaging. The Royal Society is a fantastic institution with plenty to offer to any science enthusiast, particularly their live and recorded lecture streams. On this basis, it would be fair to presume that the R.Science podcast would follow suit, but this is by no means true.

Presenters Francis and Beale speak in monotone with the result that they seem disinterested in anything the guests are saying. The guests often have a recent affiliation with the Royal Society – for instance, a public lecture or something similar and there’s a sense that the podcast interview is a dull corollary.

In the most recent instalment Professor Michelle Dougherty spoke about one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, which is expelling water vapour. Most listeners’ reaction to this news would be: “Wow, so that means there could be extra-terrestrial life out there?” But this enthusiasm was by no means reflected by either presenter, both of whom were clearly following a script that lacked any form of imagination or inquisition.

Also, one thing that is a pet hate of mine (and, I must admit, R.Science is not the only podcast guilty of this) is the use of polyphonic jingles between features, some of which sound like they’ve been taken straight from a Nokia 3310. This podcast has the ability to attract interesting people to talk about interesting topics, but somehow the final outcome is just so very bland.

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