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Evaluating Science
I've been reading a trio of popular science books recently and, while they are all excellent, they do exemplify the stylistic range of science writing out there, from "this is an easy read" to "boy, do you have to concentrate." However, the complexity of the writing is no indication of the importance of the book. As it happens, two of the books are important (one is just fun), for different reasons, and they form the opposite ends of the complexity spectrum. I'll get round to the other two soon, but right now I want to talk about the "this is an easy read" but "it is also important" book.

I always reckoned there were two (three if I was feeling generous to the third) books kids should be made to read at about fourteen years old. One was The Magic of Uri Geller by (The Amazing) James Randi, and the other was The Bermuda Triangle Mystery – Solved by Lawrence David Kusche (I will always remember top Triangle-promoter Charles Berlitz's reaction to the latter: "It's dull. It's just facts." Well, doh!) The third, not as well written or researched, but still useful, was Robert Storey's The Space Gods Revealed, which is, at least, better than Some Trust in Chariots in that it is not specifically aimed pointing out where Von Daniken contradicts the Christian world view or the Bible.

The point about these books was that they demonstrated that statements published in books/magazines, shown on TV, or – nowadays – published on the Internet are not necessarily true and demonstrated the way to debunk mystical trash in a most satisfactory fashion. However, only The Bermuda Triangle Mystery – Solved is still in print (and that in an expensive small-press paperback in the States) while its subject has slipped off the horizon except as a TV/film trope, Geller is pretty much discredited and has not appeared on our screens for some time, and Von Daniken is also mostly out of print and has slipped out of public view.

So along comes something to replace all three. What's more, it is well written, funny, and takes as its targets things that matter; alternative medicine, the big pharmaceutical companies, anti-Vaccine campaigners (particularly the anti-MMR campaign) and, above all, the atrocious "science" journalism that inflicts even such august organs as the BBC and our 'quality' newspapers.

Yes, I'm talking about Ben Goldacre's Bad Science.

There's more. Anyone who's a fan of Ben's columns for the Guardian or his own Bad Science blog ( and who reads this book expecting it to be just a fix-up of his more notable columns is going to get a real surprise. Not that this book doesn't do the usual demolition jobs on his favourite targets such as the Durham Schools fish oil not-a-trial or (not a doctor) Gillian MacKeith, but the book is of a piece. Its laudable aim is to equip the reader with simple skills in the identification of "scientific" and "statistical" lies and bullshit, and it does this with verifiable facts, logic and biting humour. In particular, the chapters "How the Media Promote the Public Misunderstanding of Science" and "Bad Stats" are essential. I have seen at least two examples of the use of (incorrect) relative risk increases in the media this very morning, one of which was directly related to one of Ben's examples (the "increasing" strength of cannabis.)

Likewise, this book went to the presses before PZ Myers and his minions (okay, I'm one, though I've never dared comment yet) at Pharyngula ( ) decided to prove the uselessness of on-line polls by blitzing them, but Ben provides a great example of how not to word an on-line poll and how not to interpret the results. (I am very fond of the comment posted to site about that poll which reads: "I think that the question is poorly worded and I hope that [this website] do not release the result of this poll to the Daily Telegraph." Of course they did. It resulted in headlines about how four out of five the doctors in the UK were not willing to perform abortions in their surgeries – you may remember it. Needless to say, the doctors had no particular objections abortions in general – just to having dangerous surgical operations performed without full facilities and technical personnel.)

If you want the full demolition of the MMR-causes-autism campaign, you'd probably still be better off looking up all Ben's Bad Science articles on the subject, where it is covered in greater depth, and the comments often contain insights and more details, but there should be enough in here to, at the very least, make people think whenever they see a scare headline or hear the words "scientists say".

It is also a very easy book to read. It isn't very long, and is written in a simple, chatty style. It is aimed at the general public, not specifically at scientifically aware people as I am sure you all are, but, unless you read Ben's blog regularly – and even if you do – you will find something in it to interest you. And, as I said, kids ought to read it. It's a sceptic's medical handbook. (Oh, and yes, Ben indulges himself in homeopathy-bashing – what did you expect?)

You know, I have a feeling that Ben's ranting might be having an effect. I heard a science report on Today a couple of days ago. Now, while the 9pm science strand on Radio 4 is usually reasonable, Today's science reports have been infamous for many years (they reported extensively and with no hint of incredulity on "cold fusion" and "oil is formed by meteor-strikes" for example.) However, this one was on some work being done on the formation of fossils, with particular respect to their astonishing survival in the Burgess Shale. It described the Cambrian explosion, and the shales, in a perfectly reasonable (i.e. an unGouldian) way, and interviewed the leader of the team involved, gave his credentials and the publication data (latest issue of Geology, in case you are interested, and the BBC reporter's blog on the subject is at It gave the facts, as far as I could tell, and did not make me want to throw the radio out of the window, as such reports usually do.

Hey, maybe someone is getting through. Perhaps some of the science reporters at the Beeb are now actually trained in science and are not Arts or Media Studies graduates who have drawn the short straw. Who'd've thunk it.

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Mr FB had been raving about this book for weeks, saying it should be compulsory reading. I was going to try and get time to read it over Xmas when we're in France. And I've boight it for my niece's fiance's Xmas pressie as he likes popular science books. (I've bought her the two Primeval novels!! She liked the series)

Mr FB has very good judgment (i.e. he agrees with me!)

Sounds like a good book, I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

I have the Goldacre book in my Amazon basket, courtesy of a recommendation from Mr Fredbassett.

I'm a journalist, and I've come across one colleague in 20 years who had science A levels -- and he went off into public sector PR. My best friend from university, who is a scientist but fairly seriously dyslexic, got down to the last handful some years ago when New Scientist were looking for trainee journalists. They seemed most unconcerned by the fact he couldn't write his way out of a paper bag, and claimed they could teach him to write. As someone who had to proof-read both his MSc and PhD, I remained to be convinced.

Most journalism training turns out generalists and not specialists, because that's what editors tend to want. You may specialise later in your career, as I have, but often that's by choice or if you spot an opening.

The lack of good science writing is a serious problem and not likely to be helped by the current upheavals in the media industry.

There are decent science journalists about but, as Ben points out,as soon as a story hits the headlines (such with as MMR) they are taken off the case and the story is given to pundits who do not even check with the science correspondents.

One of the stories Ben concentrates on towards the end of the book is the MRSA "expert" who had no microbiological qualifications and worked out of a garden shed, but was used (and defended) by newspapers because he found MRSA where no reputable lab did.

If you want to be depressed, read Nick Davies's Flat Earth News. He talks about 'churnalism' -- reporters basically churning out 'news' from press releases that land on their desk. He had some researchers from Cardiff Uni working with him, and they discovered that a scary proportion of science stories (and lots of others, for that matter) were 'planted' via press releases and by using bogus experts like the MRSA guy. Many firms now have job titles like head researcher, which they think will add gravitas to their findings.

Indeed. I get most of my science news from such site as Science Blogs. Which is why it is linked here.

Exactly. When I first read about this - in Dr Goldacre's Guardian column I was horrified.

As someone with undiagnosed (except by me!) dyslexia ... I do wonder what you (and the New Scientist) mean by 'writing'. Being able to spell isn't 'writing'. As a NS reader, I think 'writing' means being able to get to the heart of the (scientific) matter, and convey this to the readers in a limited number of words which makes the reader both believe they have understood the issues, but also wanting to read more.

From the NS editors (and my) point of view, teaching someone how to write for the NS audience is one thing, teaching a dyslexic to spell is another.

I know a number of very good journalists who are dyslexic, so it certainly doesn't preclude people from going into the industry once they can work out how best to deal with the issue.

I'm not always convinced that scientists always *are* the best people to convey the story in a limited number of words -- you can know too much and over-complicate and be afraid of dumbing down.

I have a useful question that I put to scientists when trying to get them to clarify a concept: "How would you explain that to the person in the street?"

I'd been thinking of getting this for my brother for Xmas -- he's a primary school teacher and he is always looking for interesting and sensible science material. On this review, I will definitely do so.

It's maybe just a bit advanced for primary school kids, but your brother will probably love it.

Goldacre, wonderful guy, and I try to drop by on his blog every few weeks or so. I stlll miss the Grauniad's Thursday science supplement -their daily 'science page' (really an ad page with a story pushed down the side) simply doesn't cut it.

Anomalous science is always interesting. I love debunkers like Randi who choose which particular anomaly they are prepared to look at, and which they aren't.

Can I recommend the books by William R Corliss who has been cataloging scientific anomalies for decades. These scholarly treatises are taken only from peer published reviewed science papers and make no point, except to say that there are lots of things out there that don't agree with current theories. He assesses the strength of the data in each case and then considers explanations within current theory, where they exist.

In that sense, Corliss is the exact opposite of your writers who try to deny that anomalies exist.

I hate bad science, but then I see it everywhere. (especially in defence, but I can't go there)

I haven't heard an apology yet from the scientists that assured us that polyunsaturated fats were healthier than naturally occurring fats. Remember all those flora adverts? All those people suffering from heart disease and all the other conditions these fats have induced deserve an apology at the very least.

Right now, we have an explosion of people suffering from nut allergies, a disease effectively unknown before we started injecting babies with peanut oil derivatives. A disease which follows modern medical science as it travels the world.

No apologies for all those deaths yet, because modern science insists that if something has no effect in the first few months then it must be safe. The test for vaccine side effects remains at six months, as anyone following the MMR case knows.

By following that logic, the children the US government injected with plutonium in Utah weren't affected either. The cancers they got later were pure coincidence. No doubt, Mr Randi would agree.

Cancer from mobiles? Alright, only ear cancer so far, but lets wait twenty years before the jury can sit with real evidence to view. The mechanisms are always detected after, not before, the diseases have struck.

Anybody can construct a foolproof explanation about why anybody who challenges the status quo in science is a nutter, provided they are allowed to define the argument in their own terms. Your named writers are very good at that.

I hate the way science has become a religion with its acolytes and high priests. Admitted, the anti-science mob have forced it into that position, but bad science remains bad science, even when it agrees with your personal prejudices.

I worry when the first references on Google for this author are to Conservipedia.

And there was me thinking you had an open mind.

When you publish books of scientific anomalies in which the data is unassailable (in existence terms), because he quotes publication, date, issue, author and author's qualifications along with the data, you aren't going to get a lot of references to him in the scientific community.

Corliss is hated in the scientific community but not argued with. They simply try and pretend he doesn't exist. Which is what they do with such data too.

The experiment showing fractional charge on quarks (impossible according to all the theories) has been running in MIT for 20 years without anyone finding a counter aurgument to invalidate it. Let's just pretend it doesn't exist chaps.

On the other hand, where is an author on anomalies going to get publicity? Why not buy one of his books through Amazon and judge for yourself?

Take "Ages in Chaos" by Immanuel Velikovsky. A book which since carbon dating was applied to relics has been shown to provide a much more accurate chronology than the scientific opinion around when it was published. Still doesn't get quoted by archeologists/historians, does it?


PS This weeks New Scientist looks at a view that long term memory is stored in DNA. Why would anybody want to do that? Because the current explanation of long term memory storage in the brain is known to be invalid/inadequate. The memories would be lost in months. There are holes in most theories at the edges.

You were doing fine until you got to Velikovsky and the radio-carbon dating bit. That just is not true. In fact, Velikovsky tried to make history fit the Bible when the Bible does not fit history. Tree-ring adjusted radio carbon dating fits Egyptian history, for instance, very well indeed. We know the dating systems of most literate civilizations from their monuments and, guess what, they fit together rather well, and also fit with radio-carbon and other scientific dating techniques.

The fact is that we all know there is a lot of rubbish published - and normally it ends up being disproved. Each experiment must be repeatable elsewhere and the methodology must come up to scratch. I am sure there are a lot of observations which still don't have explanations, but we must also not discount deliberate fraud. Each "anomaly" needs to be evaluated, not just listed.

What an interesting thread... I must admit, I am broadly sceptical of a lot of things - scientists who tell me 'X is perfectly safe' *and* scientists who tell me 'X is dangerous' - so that ultimately I have to consider whether X is *necessary* for me and mine. Sometimes scientists are bullies with statistics, in either direction. I've a bit of a track record in listening to advice, weighing it with my own research, and making my own mind up - pregnancy and childbirth especially being areas in which much medical bullying occurs - and naturally carrying the consequences. On which issues (several come to mind) I have no regrets.

MDs are not scientists, of course - though as it happens Ben Goldacre is a MD and a scientist. He also did a very good short series on the placebo effect on Radio 4.

One of the main problems is that we don't see the research results unless we actually go looking for them - and medical research, in particular, it gets filtered through the media who, to be frank, make a balls up of it most of the time. But then their job is to get people to read, not to tell the truth.

I note that children have started dying of measles again, when they weren't vaccinated because of a scare based on (extremely) flawed research.

Just because it was written in stone didn't mean it wasn't a big porkie. Turns out that CD shows that the Egyptians invented a few extra pharoahs and dynasties to make them look like the oldest kingdom, this screwed everyone's timelines.

Velikovsky's work, which assumed that biblical references and other sources could be reorganised according to major events like floods, volcanoes, earthquakes etc, turned out to be a much more accurate timeline than the Egyptians over their whole chronology.


Don't forget the deliberate fraud of adjusting data to agree with what is currently believed. New Scientists' anonymous survey of a few years ago found 90% of respondent scientists agreeing they had done just that.

Science is just another religion. We poor engineers get the blame whenever we make the mistake of trusting in it.

I will happily listen to you doing Fordian rants subjects you know more than I do about - unfortunately for you, ancient history is something I do know quite a lot about. You are 30 years out of date. When carbon dating was first used to date historical material, the dates it gave were plainly wrong. (We are talking here about historical periods.) It was what led to the discovery that the amount of carbon 14 in the atmosphere is a variable, not a constant. The use of the Bristlecone pine tree ring data, allied with testing its wood with carbon 14, led to a re-calibration of carbon 14 dating which brought it into line with the main timelines.

Oh, go away and read some proper archeology or history rather than this claptrap.

I would like to point out that, when it comes to a proper science subject, I am as well qualified as you (i.e. not at all - or rather to forty year old A level standard.)

Edit: And there is a vast difference between an 'open mind' and 'credulity' though many people seem to use the former to mean the latter - particularly creationists to whose ravings I have been exposed.

Edited at 2008-11-29 09:53 am (UTC)

I don't claim to be a scientist, merely a consultant engineer. I would dispute with you, however, that my degree is any more out of date than it was when I took it, the average age of the mathematics I studied being a hundred years old or more even then.

Our differences are principally one's of faith. You have faith in the scientific method and those who purport to uphold its standards. My faith has been shaken by working with many of sciences acolytes over the years. Scientists are people motivated as much by peer group approval and promotion prospects as the rest of us. You don't get to the top by telling those above you they are wrong, especially when they are.

Mathematicians, uniquely among the hard sciences recognise that mathematical models are just that. Convenient fictions that can be compared to reality provided you don't take them too seriously. Engineers use scientific models to get to approximate truths and then play games with the systems they build until they work. Models based on the flimsiest of evidence (e.g. the collaborative evidence for the supposed cutting down of the forests in Cumbria amounting to a single axe.) owe more to the social beliefs of the current time than they do to science. Similarly, the Beatles adoption of Zen Buddhism shaped the minds of quantum physicists throughout the late 20th century as much as measurements ever did.

I could point out that Velikovsky's his hypothesis that the Ipuwer Papyrus belongs not in the First Intermediate Period but rather in the Second Intermediate Period of ancient Egyptian history was accepted over 40 years ago, Kathleen Kenyon's digging of Jericho or that Pritchard's excavating at Gibeon, found no Late Bronze strata at the excavated site, in agreement with Velikovsky's timeline. And so on.

I will finish with a quote from a Naval Commander to me on this very subject. "We were conducting a trial in which something couldn't happen, when it did happen at precisely the time when they said it couldn't, the scientists argued among themselves for some time. Then they declared the event a random coincidence and struck it from the records of the trial."

Each experiment must be repeatable elsewhere

Hence the delightful Journal or Irreproducable Results the entire purpose of which (missed by all too many non-scientists) was to point out that there are always anomalies - most of which are explicable.

ANd then there's the Harvard Law of Animal Behaviour...

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