On Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”…

09/12/2005

While I’m talking about the Guardian (reports from friends within the printing presses are that it’s looks beautiful), i thought I should probably mention an article that I read on Thursday last week which I thought was one of the most important things I’ve heard people say in the media for a long time. Ben Goldacre’s piece on why bad science gets promulgated by the media hit more chords for me than any nearby troupe of jazz pianists could have accomplished in their natural lifetimes. And while I thought it was a little blanketly dismissive of ‘humanities graduates’, I do fundamentally agree that humanities graduates are now taught to mistrust science and push the idea of it as just one of many competing discourses. Over the last six or seven years I’ve become more and more suspicious of these rhetorics in the arts, and more and more aware of how they’re being appropriated by mystics and creationists in the States.

The other thing that frankly scared me was that the article – for the first time I think – really expressed the damage that the media can do with the rubbish it writes in search of a story. That I’m not sure I could stand up and point to one news organisation that takes their responsibility in this area particularly seriously really brought home Ben Goldacre’s point for me. If you can stomach it, you should read the whole damn thing: Don’t dumb me down – We laughed, we cried, we learned about statistics…

A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you, just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity, in breathless, greedy tones you will you hear how it’s scientifically possible to eat as much fat and carbohydrate as you like, for some complicated reason, but only if you do it at “the right time of day”. These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.

At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are – of course – a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers. The MMR disaster was a fantasy entirely of the media’s making), which failed to go away. In fact the Daily Mail is still publishing hysterical anti-immunisation stories, including one calling the pneumococcus vaccine a “triple jab”, presumably because they misunderstood that the meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia it protects against are all caused by the same pneumococcus bacteria