Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Bad Science And Bad Research

You might remember how I’ve decided to discuss logic and research here in an attempt to fight back against some of the very dubious argument techniques I've seen some writers rely on. And as that all sounds very dull and dry I'm getting things off to a nice gentle start today by suggesting a little reading, backed up with a great giveaway.

Dr Ben Goldacre writes a column for the Guardian called Bad Science in which he discusses the misuse and misinterpretation of science. One of his common themes is how the media frequently misrepresents scientific research in order to present a more sensationalist story and while we really should know what our politicians are up to and how our banks’ bosses are paid, the stories Goldacre covers are far more important to most of our daily lives. I’m astonished that his column isn’t more appreciated.

His Guardian articles also appear on his blog, which is a true delight: the discussions that evolve there are well-informed, articulate, reasoned and hilarious, and I usually learn more there about the truth of a story than from the news coverage I see all about me.

There is also a Bad Science book, which is a quick and funny read: but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s lightweight. It’s beautifully researched, meticulously referenced and jam-packed solid with advice and information for everyone who has ever marvelled at a newspaper story, or wondered why so many scientists seem to research such ridiculous things. And it’s all written in very clear and accessible language so it’s suitable for just about anyone, even those without a science background: my thirteen-year-old son is now reading my copy and is enjoying it immensely.

I have no doubt: if your writing depends on research in any way and you don't want to make yourself look foolish, this book is essential reading for you no matter what you’re researching: it discusses verifying data, interpreting data and how research should be structured, and warns against common misconceptions and mistakes.

I could go on about how this book makes science interesting, accessible and entertaining; or about how the fabulous Dr Goldacre meticulously unravels all the nonsense about supposed links between the MMR vaccine and autism; I could quote extensively from the book to make my point and make you laugh at the same time: the chapters about homeopathy and Gillian McKeith are riotously entertaining. But I won't do any of that. Instead I urge you to get your hands on a copy and read it for yourself, and there are two ways you could do this: you could go out and buy yourself a copy right now, or you could leave a comment here and tell me exactly why you deserve to be given one of the free copies which HarperPerennial has promised to provide to my readers.

The lucky winners will be selected a week from today from everyone who has commented on this post, and I’ll admit right now that I’m likely to be biased towards people who make me laugh, people who pay attention, and people who make sense. Those nice people at HarperPerennial will, of course, have some say in the matter so if you promote Bad Science and this giveaway in some way (on your own blogs, perhaps—remember to post links here or we won't know about your efforts), then that might well score you extra points.


Pete said...

You know, I'm tempted to submit a homeopathic post with the word "Ben" among 10^150 words randomly generated... IT'S BOUND TO WIN!

Nicola Morgan said...

HI Jane - don't include me in the prize draw, as I already have a much thumbed copy, but just to say that my copy is obviously well-thumbed because it is so good!

Mind you, even though homoeopathy "obviously" doesn't work, i'd very happily try some if it would clear my cold away ...

pinkgecko said...

Fantastic. I would love a copy of this book as I am constantly frustrated by the sensationalism and inaccuracies caused by the misinterpretation of scientific research. Even the BBC don't seem to be immune in the pursuit of a good story.

The MMR Vaccine story is of particular interest as although my son is on the Autistic Spectrum, I would not hesitate to vaccinate. Measles can cause worse disabilities and I think people forgot that (and despite the obvious faults in the original research, still do).

Research is one area I tend to get a bit lost in and I should imagine this book would be invaluable in sorting fact from fiction.

Nicola Slade said...

Drat, I can't claim I need Bad Science to do with research as I'm currently writing a series of Victorian mystery novels so I'll have to come up with something more eye-catching.

I know. How about the fact that I'm married to Mr Spock who, as a computer scientist believes he knows ALL about science (and certainly knows a lot more than I do?) It would be good to spout off the odd scrap of info and confound him and this is not easy when you had to decide, at 14, between German and Biology OR Physics and Chemistry. (There might have been a moment in my life when I could have told you something about the element in an electric iron, but that's the extent of my scientific knowledge. And THAT was a long, long time ago...)


BigFatLion said...

I eat people's brains yet I don't seem to be getting any smarter. Clearly I need this book. I'll make people read it before I eat them. Sorted!

Maggie Dana said...

Clearly, I need this book more than any of you do, given my non-existent science education at the hands of nuns back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. And while I can tell you quite a bit about those monstrous creatures (having actually ridden a diplodocus) I'd be hard put to give you the chemical makeup of linoleum or pyrethrum.

ps: tell HarperCollins not to bother shipping airmail to the States. I'l hop onto my pterodactyl and pick it up myself.
pps: Don't have a blog to help spread the news, but I'm a veteran Twitterer.

BuffySquirrel said...

I already have this book so don't put me in the draw :). I also follow Ben Goldacre on Twitter.

Not that I'm a fansqrl or anything.

And yeah...my science education was less than complete. But after several years of reading New Scientist magazine, I can now bluff my way pretty well :D.

HelenMHunt said...

I've retwittered your tweet, or retweeted your twitter - never quite sure which!

I am trying to think of a way of linking this to my 'story of the day' which falls under the heading of Bad Medicine, so that I can do a blog post about both!

catdownunder said...

A good example of why humans need to be taught logic when they attend school. It is also a good example of why they are not taught logic.
Does he tackle the topic of how researchers are paid to produce results favourable to those paying for the research?
Prowling off to find a copy here in Downunder...more to be had on my blog.

Dan Holloway said...

hi! Like Nicola I already have a thoroughly used copy, so please don't include me in the draw.

I would just like to share one thought.

The Samuel Johnson Prize. Ben Goldacre was robbed. And that's a science fact. Say I'm wrong and I'll cry and throw a tantrum. So it must be true!

BuffySquirrel said...

That being paid by the manufacturer to research their product is likely to produce a more favourable report was suspected for a long time--principle of reciprocity--but it's only recently that evidence has been sought for and found.

It's something that needs to be fixed. Urgently. Yet I see no interest among the general public in fixing it, either because they don't understand the issues involved or because they're too busy gawping at the idea that paramedics have to, yanno, DO things to people to try to resuscitate them.

Sally Zigmond said...

For over 30 years I've been living with Type 1 diabetes. Then one of my sons contracted it when he was 14. It's not fun but I'm kind of used to it after all these years.

As you would expect I am pretty well clued up on what causes it, how best to deal with it on a day-to-day-basis and how to prevent the many complications that can arise when it's not properly managed.

So you can imagine how irritated I get when every (and I mean every)newpaper report about it I read, whether the newspaper is a broadsheet or a tabloid, is one of the following: over-hyped, simplistic, inaccurate, sloppy, dangerous and downright wrong. Or al, of them.

This means that the general public is so badly informed that they don't know the distinction between the causes and treatment of the two main types of diabetes--Type One and Type Two. The latter is the one (but not always-there needs to be a genetic predisposition) that can be triggered by obesity. Type One (the one I and my son have) is an auto-immune disease where a virus causes a body's immune system to turn on itself and destroy its insulin producing cells. No definite genetic link has yet been found. It has nothing whatsoever to do with too many doughnuts or greed.

I might be less pissed off with my condition if I wasn't made to feel responsible for my own ills.

Bad science. It drives me bonkers.

Vanessa said...

Well I know EXACTLY what I'd do with a copy. I'd use it to teach with. 'Where do we find stories?' is a question I am asked so often. Some books are simply goldmines!

Dan Holloway said...

Sally, I am extraordinated by your post, although I know I shouldn't be. The idea that people still don't know the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes is boggling. But like you say, the fault is largeley with the media, who just blurt out "diabetes" and go on to give a diatribe about poor lifestyle. It's not bad science, it's tantamount to libel.

Like I say, I shouldn't be surprised, I'm used to the same thing with mental illness and the media. The recent otherwise good BBC programme about the stepfather of Baby P outlined how the man was into "Nazi memorabilia, violence, and suffered from depression"! It's irresponsible coverage like that that meant when I told a former employer (after months of plucking up the courage and deciding whether or not to "disclose") I was bipolar, the first thing she said to me was "you're not going to stab me are you?"

I have a sad feeling the media is beyond redemption. Which means the more we see of books like Dr Goldacre's, the better. Maybe one day then the public will be able to see through them.

And then, when we've sorted out the mess of media coverage of medicine, maybe we can move on to the vicious, insidious coverage of other issues.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

I live on Kauai. The guy who takes care of my lawn thinks we'll all be wiped out in 2012 when the ancient Sumerian gods return from their new home planet near Pluto to take revenge on us. The guy who sprays outside for bugs think we'll be killed in 2012 when the aliens come for us. My neighbor, who mows his lawn at noon, thinks that next month Mars will swell in the sky to become as large as the Moon. Lesson: wear a hat.