With the rebirth of Cosmos on TV, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the team have brought science back into the mainstream. No longer is science confined to the latest puff piece on cancer research that is only in the media because a) cancer and b) the researchers are pressuring the funding bodies to give them money. The terms geek and nerd have stopped being quite the derogatory terms they once were. We even have science memes becoming as popular as Sean Bean “brace yourself” memes.
This attention has also cast a light on the scientific process itself with many non-scientists and scientists passing comment on the reliability of science. Nature has recently published several articles discussing the reliability of study’s findings. One article shows why the hard sciences laugh at the soft sciences, with the article talking about statistical errors. I mean, have these “scientists” never heard of selection and sample bias? Yes, there is a nerd pecking order, and it is maintained through pure snobbishness, complicated looking equations, and how clean the lab-coat remains.
As a science nerd, I feel the need to weigh in on this attack on science. So I’m going to tear apart, limb by limb, a heavy hitting article: Cracked.com’s 6 Shocking Studies That Prove Science Is Totally Broken.
To say that science is broken or somehow unreliable is nonsense. To say that peer review or statistical analysis is unreliable is also nonsense. There are exceptions to this: sometimes entire fields of study are utter crap, sometimes entire journals are just crap, sometimes scientists and reviewers suck at maths/stats. But in most instances these things are not-science, just stuff pretending to be science. Which is why I’m going to discuss this article.
A Shocking Amount of Medical Research Is Complete Bullshit
#6 – Kinda true. There are two problems here: media reporting of medical science and actual medical science. The biggest issue is the media reporting of medical science, hell, science in general. Just look at how the media have messed up the reporting of climate science for the past 40 years.
Of course most of what is reported as medical studies are often preliminary studies. You know: “we’ve found a cure for cancer, in a petri dish, just need another 20 years of research and development, and a boatload of money, and we might have something worth getting excited about.” The other kind that get attention aren’t proper medical studies but are spurious claims by someone trying to pedal a new supplement. So this issue is more about the media being scientifically illiterate than anything.
Another issue is the part of medical science that Ben Goldacre has addressed in his books Bad Science and Bad Pharma. Essentially you have a bias toward positive results being reported. This isn’t good enough. Ben goes into more detail on this topic and it is worth reading his books on this topic and the Nature articles I previously referred to.
Many Scientists Still Don’t Understand Math
#5 – Kinda true. Math is hard. It has all of those funny symbols and not nearly enough pie charts. Mmmm, pie! If a reviewer in the peer review process doesn’t understand maths, they will often reject papers, calling the results “blackbox“. Other times the reviewers will fail to pick up the mistakes made, usually because they aren’t getting paid and that funding application won’t write itself. And that’s just the reviewers. Many researchers don’t do proper trial design and often pass off analysis to specialists who have to try and make the data work despite massive failings. And the harsh reality is that experiments are always a compromise: there is no such thing as the perfect experiment.
Essentially, scientists are fallible human beings like everyone else. Which is why science itself is iterative and includes a methods section, so that results are independently confirmed before being accepted.
This illustrates that when you test for something at the 95% confidence interval you still have a 1 in 20 chance of a false positive or natural variability arising in the test. Some “science” has been published that uses this false positive by doing a statistical fishing trip (e.g. anti-GM paper). But there is another aspect, if you get enough samples, and enough data, you can actually get a statistically significant result but not have a significant result. An example would be testing new fertiliser X and finding that there is a p value of 0.05 (i.e. significant) that the grain yield is 50kg higher in a 3 tonne per hectare crop. Wow, statistically significant, but at 50kg/ha, who cares?!
But these results will be reported, published, and talked about. It is easy for people who haven’t read and understood the work to get over excited by these results. It is also easy for researchers to get over excited too, they are only human. But this is why we have the methods and results sections in science papers, so that calmer, more rational heads prevail. Usually after wine. Wine really helps.
Scientists Have Nearly Unlimited Room to Manipulate Data
#3 – True but misleading. Any scientist *could* make up anything that they wanted. They could generate a bunch of numbers to prove that, for an example of bullshit science, the world is only 6000 years old. But because scientists are a skeptical bunch, they’d want some confirming evidence. They’d want that iterative scientific process to come into play. And the bigger that claim, the more evidence they’d want. Hence why scientists generally ignore creationists, or just pat them on the head when they show up at events: aren’t they cute, they’re trying to science!
But there is a serious issue here. The Nature article I referred to was a social sciences study, a field that is rife with sampling and selection bias. Ever wonder why you hear “scientists say X is bad for you” then a year later it is “scientists say X is good for you”? Well, that is because two groups were sampled and correlated for X, and as much as we’d like it, correlation doesn’t equal causation. I wish someone would tell the media this little fact, especially since organic food causes autism.
Other fields have other issues. Take a look at health and fitness studies and spot who the participants were: generally they are university students who need the money to buy tinned beans and beer. Not the most representative group of people and often they are mates with one of the researchers, all 4 of them. Not enough participants and a biased sample: not the way to do science. The harder sciences are better, but that isn’t to say that there isn’t limitations. Again, *this is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.*
The Science Community Still Won’t Listen to Women
#2 – I disagree (but I’m a guy, so I’d love to hear from someone without a penis on this one). There is still a heavy bias toward men in senior positions at universities and research institutes, just like all other aspects of society. This is gradually changing, but you have to remember what age those senior people are and what that generation required of women (quit when they got married, etc). That old guard may have influence, but I doubt it is as large as implied, and they’ll all be dead or retired soon where their influence will be confined to the letters to the editor in the newspaper. And I’d question how much this influence has on “listening” to women in science, because if there is a field that encourages knowledge and evidence over other aspects, then science is it.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t an issue with equality still to be dealt with. That old guard isn’t dead yet and their influence will hang around like old people smell for a while to come. But this issue isn’t confined to science and I think science is better placed than many other fields. I won’t go into the preferred areas of study issue, as maths, engineering, science, social science, humanities, etc, all have massive differences in their sex ratios that would need an entire uninformed rant on.
It’s All About the Money
#1 – D’uh and misleading. Research costs money. *This is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.* Money may bring in bias, but it doesn’t have to, nor does that bias have to be bad or wrong. Remember how I said above that science is an iterative process? Well, there is only so big a house of cards that can be built under a pile of bullshit before it falls down in a stinky mess. Money might fool a few people for a while (e.g. climate change denial) but science will ultimately win.
Ultimately, science is the best tool we have for finding out about our reality, making cool stuff, and blowing things up. Without it we wouldn’t be, this article wouldn’t be possible, we wouldn’t know what a Bill Nye smack down looks like. Sure, there is room for improvement, especially in the peer review process and funding arrangements, and science is flawed because it is done by humans, but science is bringing the awesome every day: we have to remember that fact.
In the tradition of nutritionists – the toothyologists of dietary advice – I have developed a new free diet plan to help people lose weight. Just like all other fad diets, my diet promises to help you lose weight or your money back. And just like other fad diets, I have come up with an overly simple way of losing weight that is guaranteed to not work in the long term.
Introducing the Dodgy Kebab Diet™
The relationship between an alcoholic binge-fest and a stop for a dodgy kebab before heading home has long been known. But have you ever wondered why it is that people don’t gain pudgy spare tires around their middle from their night of drunken debauchery? Well, thanks to not-science and pure speculation, I have discovered that it is the dodgy kebab that keeps people thin and ready for another night of drinking your paycheck.
You see, the dodgy kebab contains a quantum field of dietary entanglement. This means that the dodgy kebab sneaks up on all of that alcohol and redefines its aura, changing it from calories to vomit, which I call the Gastro™ effect.
Now this may work for the overindulgence evenings, but a diet has to be every day for 10 days or 1 dress size, so how can the Dodgy Kebab Diet™ work without the need to get plastered every day? Well, the dodgy kebab’s quantum field of dietary entanglement works just as well on your stomach lining as it does on alcohol.
The diet is very simple: eat one dodgy kebab per day for 10 days and I guarantee you will lose weight.* That’s it! You will feel better ** and look better ***.
Don’t just take my word for it: here is one of my satisfied
Shane: I started the Dodgy Kebab Diet™, caught Gastro™ and lost 5kg.
With the Dodgy Kebab Diet™ you pay no money for access to my fully unqualified nutritionists (we’d have to be dieticians to be qualified). You only pay $59.95 per month for access to our extensive database of Dodgy Kebab Diet™ endorsed vendors. No need to spend every Saturday night wandering around to find the one with Gastro™. I’ve done all the research for you, compiling all the dodgy kebab vendors from the Food Safety Authority. All you have to do is send me $59.95 and I will send you the mobile phone app and simple instructions on how to get the most out of your bout of Gastro™.
What if kebabs aren’t my thing?
For an extra $9.95 I can include Chinese, Thai, and all of the least cooked chicken restaurants in your area.
Order now to avoid disappointment at eating well cooked food and gaining weight like a mug.
* We don’t guarantee weight loss on this diet.
** You will only feel better if you make it to the hospital emergency room on time.
*** Looking better is determinant upon surviving the food poisoning and proper application of makeup.
Thanks to Shane Nixon for helping inspire this diet.
I’ll admit it: I did English Literature in high school. I wasn’t particularly good at it. I’ll exclude all my other excuses as to why I didn’t do well in Lit – like my general lack of motivation in school and desperate need to complete the final level of DOOM – and blame my poor grades on the above graphic.
Obviously not the graphic itself, that would be silly. I mean the message that the graphic is trying to relay, and not just that the curtains may be blue. In school and even now, I find that literature is often over-interpreted. I remember clearly one example of this when we were forced to study Shakespeare’s MacBeth. Studying a play by reading it already had me wanting to throw stuff at the teacher, as plays are meant to be watched, not read. But I remember the teacher being adamant that there was a very important juxtaposition and allegory in the comedic scene of the drunken porter.
If you can’t remember this scene in MacBeth, suffice to say it is one big joke about how being drunk makes you pee and ruins erections. Dick jokes never go out of fashion.
Apparently there is a lot of deep and meaningful stuff going on….. Dick jokes can be deep and meaningful. I always thought that MacBeth chucked in that joke scene because the rest of the play was so dark, and it gave his actors a chance to change costumes before the next act. Essentially, I thought that it was just a necessity and the master playwright had made it fun for the audience. My teacher disagreed.
But that is the thing, unless Shakespeare wrote down his intentions, or there are some amazing insights recorded from his time, then it is just conjecture, or playing with themselves. Occam’s Razor would have us take the simplest answer that fits and not try to overcomplicate things.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t deeper meaning in any artistic work, far from it. But a lot of the deeper meaning is about the reader’s projection as much as what is/was written. Take as an example the list that the wonderful Mental Floss put together:
Many famous authors, many misinterpretations.
Now some authors and genres love to go overboard with the hidden meanings, or at least like to make it seem deep and meaningful (see Steve Hely’s satire on this). Some authors just do it accidentally as part of including various themes and ideas in their work. But literary analysis really does take that interpretation to another level.
Essentially, why can’t people just enjoy a book?
It’s quite interesting to see how the premise for any book, movie or TV show is endemic. The above example of Breaking Bad is a classic, and especially funny given the current furore over affordable health care in the USA. But there are plenty of others.
Sherlock Holmes is a classic example. Imagine a drug addicted, genius, arsehole detective in the modern age where drugs are illegal. Yep: Sherlock and the Hounds of B-Block. Also, before anyone says House, think about how long House would have spent in malpractice suits.
Robinson Crusoe would be pretty difficult to see happening in this day and age. Sure, Tom Hanks tried to convince us that modern people could be lost on an island and survive by their wits and a bunch of FedEx packages. But with modern tracking methods, mapping and the fact that no-one travels by boat now-a-days, Robinson Crusoe would be Bear Grylls or Survivor.
Huckleberry Finn is the tale of a young boy running away with his adult slave. That just wouldn’t happen these days. Now it isn’t that slaves don’t exist anymore (they do), nor the idea of run-aways. A young boy going missing in the USA with a grown man, sounds like an episode of Without a Trace.
The test of a premise really is to see if it would work anywhere else, any-time else. If it doesn’t work anywhere or any-when else, then it is interesting. If it can be transposed, how interesting was the premise to begin with?
A while back I wrote a post on how sharks aren’t the deadly monsters attacking people all the time that we think they are. Now I’m not suggesting that we all go and hug sharks, they only like to be touched by cleaning fish, nor that we jump in to swim with them, they play tag far too roughly for delicate humans. What I’m suggesting is that we really need to start worrying about stuff that is actually a concern rather than stuff that is just wild gesticulations in front of a camera for ratings.
So here is a list of things that kill more people than sharks annually: