Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bad Science

I am enjoying Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science very much. He has a regular column of the same name in The Saturday Guardian although he is on a six month sabbatical. Read his last column before the break here.

He writes well and entertainingly of his frustration, firstly that few newspapers have the first idea how to present a science story and secondly that so much that passes for science is actually PR - paid for by the industry most likely to benefit from the particular findings of a piece of research. He helps us to understand how to read between the lines and, in particular, not to fall for the pseudo-scientific claims of the alternative medicine community.

It's a tough time to be a scientist. The Observer reported last week that scientists are becoming terrified by the anti-science backlash that now, routinely, rubbishes the science behind climate change and evolution.

This is currently a peculiarly American phenomenon. Listen to the Republican candidates for president arguing and you won't hear a word against the evangelical Christian right even if that involves swallowing a load of unbelievable bunkum as literal truth. They say that what happens in the States happens here within five to ten so watch out.

So scientists find themselves attacked by the right for being anti-religion and attacked by the left for being insufficiently clear. I think it is a brave time to be a scientist with a public profile. I wish them well in their militancy.

In the midst of this Goldacre alone seems to stride like a colossus asking the same questions of everyone. Has this been peer reviewed? Have you drawn your conclusions from the evidence? Have you sampled correctly? Have you published your bad results as well as the favourable ones?

I love him. I just read an article that tells me I will make my brain last longer and avoid dementia if I fast for one or two days a week. I might previously have, er, swallowed that but I did a quick check online and found this piece which says almost the opposite. The article I read was in The Observer, a sister paper to the Guardian who publish Goldacre, and under the name of the Science Editor.

This bad science stuff is rife.

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