Bad Science: Ben Goldacre’s creationism

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science is one of the most important columns published in any newspaper. It almost always lives up to its promise to ‘skewer the enemies of reason’ through the dogged pursuit of those who corruptly misrepresent science, make false claims and mislead the vulnerable, while promoting rigorous evidence based solutions.

All of which makes it disappointing when Ben Goldacre suddenly makes an appeal to emotion and leaves all that reason behind, as he did when discussing vivisection. The point Ben wishes to make – that, regardless of the ethical debate, much animal research is poorly conducted – is important, but he lets himself down.

Ben Goldacre lets us know he fears entering a bear pit – ‘you don’t want anyone digging up your grandmother’s grave, or setting fire to your house, or stuff like that’ – then quickly follows up with the all important, but unsubstantiated, claim that ‘animal experiments are necessary’.

It would be foolish to deny that vivisection has done some good. We could do even more good by experimenting on humans, but we decide that the ends do not justify the means. We make value judgements – ‘animal experiments are necessary… experimenting on humans is evil’ – and should always be ready to question our values.

While Ben Goldacre acknowledges that poorly conducted, badly communicated research causes animals to suffer in vain, he can’t help but question the validity of that suffering; ‘whatever you believe that might mean for an animal’. No individual wishes to suffer, but suffering is an unpleasant fact and there is no evidence that it actually matters beyond the individual. No matter how many people suffer and die, the world just carries on. In another billion years the sun will have heated up to such an extent that all life Earth will end. Nature is indifferent.

The notion that suffering is bad is a value judgement. But where do our values come from and if suffering is bad for humans, then why not for other animals? Indeed, some humans perpetrate acts so heinous we may judge they deserve to suffer. Those of us who aspire to a life guided by reason, informed by Darwin, understand that we are animals too. Those who follow the main creationist faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) believe that humans, created through a different process, are fundamentally different from the beasts over whom humans have been given dominion, that only humans have a soul and that only humans will rise up and enter the Kingdom of God.

To casually judge that ‘animal experiments are necessary’ is to demonstrate a value system that owes much more to creationism than to reason.

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