Bad Science

Written on February 06 2009 at 10:44 and updated on February 06 2009 at 11:59

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Ben Goldacre with my friend Chris, who had also been kind enough to lend me Ben’s book a few months earlier (and apologies to Chris for not returning it sooner). For those who aren’t aware of Ben Goldacre, he’s been writing for years about “Bad Science”, which is in general terms the misrepresentation of science by the popular media, and how this can have a damaging effect on society as a whole.

If you haven’t already read it, I cannot recommend his book highly enough. The gist is so beautifully simple that it should be taught in primary schools: any statement of fact is only as good as the methodology used to derive it.

Jeni Barnett is a cretin

Take the current mini-storm surrounding Jeni Barnett’s MMR programme, where a radio journalist spouts Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt based on her expertise “as a parent”.

Jeni uses reactionary truisms like “don’t follow the herd” to justify planting seeds of doubt about whether or not children should have vaccines (and not just MMR, but any vaccines at all).

The company behind her show has threatened Ben Goldacre legally, but you can listen to the whole thing here (or as much of it as you can stand before wanting to violently throw your computer against the wall to end the inane bleeting).

If this is reason, then bring me my pipe

Jeni’s argument boils down to:

  1. You shouldn’t always do what authority figures say
  2. I have heard bad things about the MMR vaccine
  3. My child is my responsibility, so it’s up to me to decide what happens to it
  4. So, I’m not going to give my child the MMR.

I think you might’ve skipped a few steps there. Like, do you have the information and tools to evaluate the ‘bad things’ you’ve heard? Have you examined the sources of this information, and determined whether or not their reasoning and conclusions are valid? Of course not.

So if there’s merit in not-following-the-herd without any other justification, I’m with you all the way! Everyone says smoking is bad for you, but I’m no sheep - bring me my pipe, and stuff it with fibreglass! I’m sick of all this 5-a-day-and-get-some-exercise advice from the government and the NHS, who are they to tell me what I should be doing? NOW BRING ME MY CAKE SANDWICH! DEEP FRIED!

‘The Man’

There’s also this reactionary attitude towards ‘Authority’, a dark and shadowy cabal which has recently extended its membership to all scientists and ‘allopathic’ medical professionals in exchange for their utter obedience to The Man.

Why should we, the glorious public, believe anything these know-it-all nerd-boffins tell us? The only difference between us them is that they have years of training and their work is rigorously scrutinised by other highly-trained people, and what is that worth?

Oh, right… hang on…

Science is not an exclusive practice which the public cannot engage with.

It’s just hard work, and we’re too lazy to do it when you can buy The Sun every day and get a set of pre-formed ‘opinions’, and maybe get a free MP3 player with to boot, or turn on the radio and let ‘journalists’, full of sound and fury, pour bombastic-sounding crap into our ears.

Jeni: Your show is editorial nonsense, and I would kindly ask you to not only get out of my ears, but stop pouring your idiocy into the minds of others around me too. Please make room for some real, reasoned and researched reporting from reporters who actually care about the effect the media has on the public, and undertake their journalism with respect and humility.

You have to actually do some thinking

Our right to ‘do as we see fit’ can only exist when we also rigorously scrutinize each potential course of action. There is nothing wrong with questioning what you are being asked to believe and do, but if you don’t do it within a solid mechanism for reasoning and testing your conclusions, then you might as well be mumbling gibberish to ducks in a park.

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