Bad Pharma, Good Evening: Ben Goldacre at the Oxford Union

A couple of weeks ago we got a call asking us if we wanted to provide books for an evening with Ben Goldacre at the Oxford Student Union. It was a case of thinking it over carefully, and then trying to remain cool and calm a few milliseconds later whilst answering in a slightly high voice 'yes please'...

Mostly Books sits within the science-heavy triangle of Harwell, Culham and Oxford - and it's fair to say that we get more science readers than the average bookshop. Ben Goldacre's books have done very well for us - Bad Science is a modern classic - and 'Bad Pharma' (a meticulously researched and brilliantly-constructed critique of the Pharmaceutical Industry) is one of the most important - and disturbing - books to have been published in recent years.

So on Monday night - despite rising floodwater - we navigated the great distance between Abingdon and Oxford City Centre safely, and shortly before 8pm there was an impressive queue forming to hear Ben speak:

Here's Ben speaking (photo taken from the slightly disconcerting, creaking wooden balcony in the Chamber). There were between 200-300 students on the night:
Ben is possibly the unlikeliest crusader against a £600bn global corporate kleptocracy responsible for many hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. But there you go. Criticism of 'big pharma' is widespread of course, but much of it can be safely categorised as the 'foil hat' conspiracy variety in some of the more obscure corners of the Internet. And that's probably the way the pharmaceutical industry likes it...
What makes Ben different is a unique combination of talents: a deep and profound understanding of the industry and how it works, his abilities as a writer to communicate complex ideas, and the genuine desire and commitment he has to improving the current system. Ultimately he is just a little guy, standing there, looking at the facts and saying 'this situation is bad for patients, doctors, governments and society, and we know the problems, and we know we can fix it - so why don't we?'.

This is his biggest weapon. He does not rant. He is not a conspiracy theorist. His speaking style - that of slightly exasperated, ex-doctor-turned-nerdy-science-writer - is because that is what he actually is, knocking on the door of mega-corporations and government regulators, making reasonable requests to see data on drug trials, and refusing to go away as their stalling tactics get ever more bizarre.

This must be extremely irksome to the Pharmaceutical Industry. They are not happy. I asked him, half-jokingly, if he's being followed. But I reckon any efforts to smear or even threaten him will prove ineffectual because he genuinely wants to make things better and get the debate out into the open. You cannot really question his motivations.

(BTW, if you are in any way interested in how drugs company's operate, how they legally 'bury' bad trial data, convince our government to spend 9% of its annual drugs budget on pills with no verifiable efficacy, and hoodwink doctors and patients, read the book. In fact, if you have ever taken prescription drugs in any form, please, please read this book).

Anyway - back to the event. We made a slight miscalculation in where the book stall was set up. Here's the queue for the signing, together with the queue to buy the book...and the queue to get out. Hmm. If we are ever invited back (and we greatly enjoyed the experience) we might make a few changes to positioning...
Ben signed books, talked to students, and gave advice on everything from 'how to be a science writer' or the best way to do a medical PhD...
Thanks very much to HarperCollins and the Oxford Union for the opportunity to do the event, and to Fran and Mark on the night for coping with slightly nervous and twitchy booksellers beforehand.

(A big thank you also to Sarah from Health Press Ltd - who publish Fast Facts from a building round the back of Mostly Books - and who helped out on the bookshop on the night. It was Sarah who enthused about Bad Pharma and got us reading it when it first came out.)
In the spirit of the evening, and as a gesture to the free sharing of data (Pharma companies, Amazon, et altake note) we sold 47 copies of 'Bad Pharma' on the evening, and 11 copies of 'Bad Science'. We also, incidentally, received a very warm welcome from staff and students at the Union who made us feel very welcome for our first ever event there...thank you.

Signed copies of Bad Pharma and Bad Science now at Mostly Books...

(For anyone interested in learning more about what Ben said on the evening concerning the response to his book by Stephen Whitehead, chief executive of the ABPI: Ben goes head-to-head with Stephen at the Royal Institution on the 26th February. It should be a humdinger...moderated by the great Dr Phil Hammond. Go Ben!)


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  2. On behalf of Oxford Biological Society we were absolutely thrilled to have you selling the books at the event- you were so efficient, enthusiastic and professional throughout the night. It was a pleasure that you could be there that evening providing the ability to buy his books- thank you!

  3. It was a real pleasure to be there as well. We are very aware of the history, tradition and role call of the great and the good who have spoken in the Union.