I probably shouldn’t say too much. I’m female, you see, and scientists have said that “girls [are] at risk of talking too much”. It was a headline in the Telegraph. Scary stuff. If we ladies don’t stop our nattering, all human culture could be swept away by the chirruping tide of oestrogen-imbued verbiage. Continue reading
My dad would bring the works of Stephen Jay Gould along as his holiday reading for our family weeks in France, and one day he showed me a two-page spread comparing two pictures of dots. In one, the dots were scattered about the page; in the other, they were clumped into whorls and clusters. “Which of these”, asked my dad, “do you think has a pattern?” Obviously, I cheated and looked at the captions so I could get the answer right, but all the same my first inclination was to go for one that with the twists and the spirals.
That was the wrong one: any pattern I’d seen was the result of my grasping brain seeking relationships between randomly positioned objects on the page, while the random-looking sprinkled dots on the other image had been generated with a simple rule governing the space between each point. So, I learnt two things about my judgement. First, that I was very very bad at seeing order in absences; second, that I would eagerly interpret a pattern in any number of things that fell close enough together to seem connected. And, according to the text of the essay¹ this illustrated, most people made the same mistake I did. Human beings are ferociously good strange coincidence detectors, and absolutely horrible at interpreting relationships within large quantities of information.
How horrible? Well, if you read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian, every week has a new example of either general failure to comprehend research and statistics, or cynical exploitation of this general failure. The book pulls together some of the great narratives of irrationality covered by Goldacre on his blog and for the paper: the great greasy mess of the Durham fish oils trials, the strange power of homeopathy, the depressing momentum of the MMR scare.
And what feels invigorating and entertaining as a weekly debunking takes on a more depressing character as it builds up into a bigger argument about the weakness of the media and the failure of public understanding of science. Christ, it really is dreadful. Newspapers and broadcast outlets routinely distort figures, present corporate press releases as interesting facts, and confound unlikly anecdotes with evidence – partly because the average jouralist is no better than any other average person at understanding figures, and partly because of the brutalising demands of churnalism and the economic need to pull out a striking headline.
Bad Science is an excellent tutorial in recognising the shabby stories and filtering out the nonsense from your news consumption (you’ll never read a report about nutrition without muttering, “Yes, but are they a dietitian?” to yourself). Once you’ve started disgarding the misinformation and the mangled data, though, there’s almost no science coverage left to read: some Saturdays, there’s probably only Goldacre. And even with his sharp writing and smart jokes, it’s undeniably all a bit bleak.
But you don’t just get your faith in journalism smashed out of you. You also get a high-speed course in all the mental distortions that make mistakes like mine with the dots, or Nick Cohen’s with the MMR, so easy to make. And then you get a breezy walkthrough of the ways science has developed to compensate for these crippling freaks of perception: placebo controlled trials, statistical analysis, things so sublimely elegant that once they’re explained it seems extraordinary that anyone ever got anything right without them – and so precisely counter-intuitive, it’s astonishing that people worked them out at all.
For regular Bad Science readers, a lot of the book will feel familiar. But the force and clarity gained by putting everything in the same place is great, and even if you’ve soaked up everything Goldacre’s ever written – every post, tweet and blog comment – you should still buy and read this book, especially now it comes in a new mass-market paperback with the previously-withheld-due-to-legal-proceedings Matthias Rath chapter. (If you’ve already paid out for the first edition, the extra chapter is available to download. Lovely.) There aren’t many things you can buy that will genuinely make you smarter, but by giving you a thorough education in your own – and the media’s – ignorance, this book is worth an ocean of fish oil.
¹ Look, I know it’s pretty shabby to have started out a review of Bad Science with an unsourced anecdote. I think the essay is in Bully For Brontesaurus, and if anyone’s got a copy to hand and can correct my shambling memories, I’d be powerfully grateful.
A couple of years ago, I was at a graduate conference on English literature, attending a panel on research approaches. One of the speakers said that she simply didn’t understand the designation of “close reading” as a critical technique – surely, she said, everyone reads closely, whatever their outlook. Actually, I’m fairly sure that almost nobody pays more than cursory attention to the things they read, otherwise the perpetual deluge of illogic and solecism which rushes from the national press would have have been long ago stopped up by embarrassment. Really, if Nick Cohen thought anyone was going to read this attentively, do you think he would have submitted it? Let’s practise our close reading skills, oh Paperhouse visitors, and find out what secret inanities are buried in the big inanity of this column:
Ever since Andrew Wakefield published his Lancet paper in 1998, parents have been in a dreadful position. Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?On the remote chance that he was, we paid for courses of single jabs – at £140-a-go in my case. Now it turns out the Department of Health was telling the truth all along, I’m wondering who I can sue to get my money back.
Perhaps Wakefield, the Lancet, the Mail, the Eye and Channel 5 should be more worried about the people who took the mania so seriously they didn’t give their children any vaccines, single of multiple. In my experience, they were determined, if scientifically illiterate, middle-class mothers with easy access to lawyers.
If there should be a measles epidemic…
So class! What have we noticed? Let’s start with Cohen’s opening shuffle of responsibility: “Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?” Clever Nick is one of the ones who “guessed”, of course, and so by implication are you. Isn’t it nice to be embraced in his little circle of intelligence? Don’t you feel validated and warm and distinct from all those raving hysterics? But before we get too cosy, let’s give some attention to the word “guessed”. Cohen “guessed” that the panic was just a panic. Of course, if he’d read some of the studies in question and wrapped his head around a small portion of the science of epidemiology, he wouldn’t have needed to guess – he could have made a rational assessment of the evidence and got to the right answer that way. But he didn’t, so poor Nick had to suffer that niggling “what if”.
Nick wasn’t alone in this, of course. I had my first child in 2002, so I was right in the thick of the scare: one mother talked to me earnestly about her fear of vaccinating, saying that she knew “three children who got autism from the jab”. People were genuinely alarmed – although it’s fair to say that very few of the fearful parents took their concerns from the original paper in the Lancet, which doesn’t feature quite as regularly on middle-class coffee-tables as the Mail or the Observer. Cohen doesn’t mention the Observer as one of the organs he might sue for his £140 quid. Maybe he missed some of the great moments in science journalism featured in his own paper: “The only complete vaccination I have given my three-year-old daughter is tetanus and, after attending a lecture on MMR by the homeopath Trevor Gunn, I wish I had not” , said sub-editor Kate Edgley, presumably applying the full force of her proof-reading skills to the interpretation of medical data. (The Observer started out with a fairly rational line of reporting, but after the Blairs refused to give up their baby son’s medical history for public consumption, began recklessly issuing opinion pieces from the frontline of doubt.)
It’s the job of a medical journal to publish medical research so it can be debated. In publishing Wakefield’s research, the Lancet was doing what it is supposed to do. Ideally, the national press would have made a responsible assessment of the paper in question and reported on it proportionately. What they actually did was produce reports on unsubstantiated fears which then became the cause for more and more widespread fears. I feel confident in saying that I and my partner are one up on Cohen, because we took our own case of “what if” as the occassion for doing more research: we confirmed that the single jab was without doubt the best option, and afterwards watched my son for fever and rashes a little more closely than we would have done normally. That is all.
Then again, I’m not one of the “determined, if scientifically illiterate, middle-class mothers with easy access to lawyers”. But hang on! Nor is Nick – he might be scientifically illiterate, bar the odd happy guess, but he is absolutely, definitely a father. So that “large section of the supposedly adult population” from whom Cohen distinguishes himself, even though he partook of their terrors? That would be the women. Cohen might have had doubts, but it’s the mothers who were in a “raving panic”. Covert misogyny alert!
Of course, “if there should be a measles epidemic”, we’re all liable to suffer, whether we’re vaccinated or not. The MMR isn’t 100% effective, but it’s effective enough to foster herd immunity. When take-up rates dip low enough for measles, mumps or rubella to spread in a community, even the immunised are at risk. So even if you did the right and responsible thing, your children could contract a sometimes-deadly, often-debilitating disease. Although on the plus side, you could then sign up with Cohen for a class action – if he suffered some loss that was not self-inflicted (the ill-health of a child caused by other people’s failure to vaccinate, say) then maybe he could sue someone. Until then, he had better look on that £140 quid as a loss incurred in the course of being an irrationalist, conspiracy-hungry idiot.
Bad Science talks, rightly, about the importance of giving people (journalists particularly) a proper grounding in the understanding of statistics. People need to know how to interpret numbers to make decisions using them. And people (journalists particularly) should learn the basics of making an argument as well – how to distinguish a genuine case from a self-serving blob of commentary. Smarter readers would demand smarter writers. But brash, sloppy editorial is easy to churn out, and easy to position as “debate” on “controversial issues” when it isn’t going to be read closely.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009