So I spent yesterday evening with Dr Ben Goldacre. Well, after last night’s show I wish it had been me, him and a couple of beers; but in fact there was me and a few hundred other people, but it felt like he was chatting with each of us individually – and that’s a real skill.
I’ve read his books and articles and so had built up a mental image of Goldacre which was nothing like the reality. In person Goldacre is a bundle of slightly manic energy topped with graying curly hair who runs about the stage with evident enthusiasm. And I wasn’t expecting him to be so funny. Occasionally when his tendency to erudition gets the better of him and his delivery slows a bit, he’ll shout out ‘BUT” and then re-launch himself. And, wow, does he know his stuff.: he has facts and figures just dripping off him.
Goldacre is all about using facts, figures, and the scientific method to test claims and positions. He can bring those tools to bear on quacks, conspiracy theorists, and other scientists with equal facility. He clearly sees both openness and facts as the universal cleanser; and both his day job and his media platform give him an opportunity to do some cleaning.
Inevitably not everyone likes being challenged and one of the fascinating aspects of the evening was his explanation of the wafer-thin difference in the way quacks on social media and academic journals respond when they feel threatened.
In a bit of unscripted humour, Goldacre was presented on stage with the UNSW Scientia Medal for Science Communication. While he obviously knew he’d been given the award, he was clearly wishing he’d left his jacket on and tucked in his shirt when sprung with the actual presentation.
Overall, Ben Goldacre is a witty, charming presenter and makes for a great high-energy show that leaves you thinking. It was only unfortunate that there wasn’t a bit more time with him actually presenting his ideas as opposed to being interviewed or answering questions.
By the way, I did get to ask him a question about how you deal with things when the conspiracy theorists cannot be ignored because they are in power (our new senators who believe vaccinations cause autism and that climate change is a conspiracy to create a new world order). He, predictably enough, felt shinning a light on their beliefs holding them to account is the key – and that that’s the role the media is not fulfilling.
Last night was the only Sydney show, but if you ever get another opportunity don’t miss the chance to spend An Evening with Dr Ben Goldacre.