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On Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science"…

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

6 replies on “On Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science"…”

At last! Something that makes sense about the rubbish that passes for science journalism.
Problem is, when noted figures finally say what you think (thanks Ben!), the anti-rational hero-cult gets started.

I too thought it was a very good article, but again, by the fourth-or-so reference to these nameless “humanities graduates” I was getting a bit pissed off – I mean, it’s one thing to campaign for decent standards – which I entirely agree with – but to suggest that only science graduates have a hope of getting it right, oh, come on. It turned into a lazy and cheap aside. As an aside, I’m a humanities graduate, but I very nearly wasn’t, and have enough scientific background to be perfectly comfortable with what most of Goldacre demands.
One of the most influential (to me) people I worked with in the media once told me the importance of standards. When someone in the office said “what’s linear regression?” after it had come up, surprisingly, he provided a brief and succinct explanation. When the next person said “how did you know that?” he explained that a while back, when he was an education correspondant, a new set of figures came out. He realised he didn’t understand the regression involved – key to appreciating what they really meant – so he sat down with a book that afternoon and learnt it, in order to write his article accurately. He’s a keen advocate that, if nothing else, journalists need to understand statistics. I thoroughly agree – if only to prevent headlines such as CRISIS: BAD GETS 50% WORSE!

I largely agree with Ben’s piece [and your earlier excellentt post on Science and Design] although I think his [and yours too, Tom] belief in Scientific Rationale puts a little too much faith [!] in the rigour with which much science questions it’s own methods and practices.
Rather than arguing over the epistemological grounding of different discourses [which itself leads to relativism] a more produtive approach may be to analyse the practices of Scientists. Bruno Latour, amongst others, has shown that Scientists’ way of working codifies certain things as ‘truths’ which are contextually quite nuanced. Many of the greatest scientific breakthroughs have come from people who questioned these ‘truths’… and any history of Science will show how messy the process of groundbreaking science is – from Pasteur to Watson and Crick. This is not to detract from Science – indeed I believe that Science is on the whole very rigorous and the process of testing hypotheses does work [far more so than most Social Science research] but it is fallible.

As a recent and fairly typical humanities graduate, I understand your point about the mistrust with which science is treated in arts & humanities departments. I’m not sure you should restrict this mistrust to university faculties though; it is a distinct component of our postmodern condition and pervades our culture far more widely. The flip side of the media’s pursuit of bandwagon/”bad” science is the growth of astrology, “spiritualism”, and superstitious belief in general (how many people try bending spoons when Uri Geller is on TV?) — scientific modernism has not rescued us from these myths, and, giving the secularisation thesis a wide birth, hasn’t seen them decline. In defence of universities (which I accept generally have a left-wing slant), they are only really voicing the generalised mistrust of science and empiricism which exists in society at large. Indeed, see Adorno’s fascinating essay “The Stars Down to Earth”…

Not sure I see much evidence that modern society distrusts science. But for many, science is uninteresting, difficult and unconnected to everyday experience. And it’s harder to pass the exam. And your co-workers or co-students are not as attractive. Further, the likes of Richard Dawkins have hurt the credibility with science with the broad mass of people who think that life is more interestingly mysterious than scientists would have us … er…. believe. People don’t want to hear the news that there is a scientific explanation for everything, and that we live until we die.

I agree. But the question is: are people likely to change? The vast majority of people are as terrified in the face of death (if not more so) as they ever were. “Myth” is not going to leave us, and for that reason, it is inevitably a part of the practice of science. cf Mary Midgley’s “The Myths we Live By” or Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies”.
Couldn’t agree more that people like Richard Dawkins give science a bad name. But this is for more reasons than people’s incredulity; science reduces the human, and it always needs something more. cf Derrida on the supplement; there is nothing which is sufficient in itself.

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