I’m bad at French horn

by scotslawstudent

Ben Goldacre – best selling author of Bad Science (a good book which I do heartily recommend as a grim, anger inducing read about the venal and selfish side of human nature) – has given an interview for Intelligence Squared. The interview covers the ‘problem’ of media coverage of science.

Goldacre has a really appealing comparator for the way that science is needlessly dumbed down in the media: no one dumbs down snooker for TV. You either know the rules of snooker already or you just don’t understand what’s going on. Science really gets a terrible time of it in the media; it’s morphed into a game where one person says something that he seems awfully sure of for 30 seconds and another person says something that they are equally (if not more) sure of for 30 seconds that makes it sound a lot like the first guy was completely wrong in every way. There’s not really enough time to get beyond the very basics (like “X does/n’t kill you so you are/n’t fine”) so you don’t get to look into possible warning signs with either person’s research (if they have actually done any work on the subject to begin with) or even the reason why either person thinks what they do — that’s called the science bit and that’s a bit complicated.

He makes a good point during the interview about the portrayal of things as science issues to hide your underlying motive, for instance racism has many examples of “scientific fact” being used to justify the prejudices the speaker wanted to hold in the first place. That’s not science being a bad thing, that’s science being misused.

What about the…

All the above is important stuff and I do feel strongly about it, but the thing that really caught my ear is where the interviewer asks the “what about the people who say ‘I don’t know where to go to find the evidence’?” question. Obviously people being unable to integrate with the scientific process because they don’t have access to the source material is a bad thing so that’s a no brainer, bad thing is bad.

Goldacre’s answer is interesting – for the example of climate change evidence he points people towards the IPCC advice to governmental policy makers and calls it a good piece of popular science writing. He talks about the controversy over the melting glacier issue and explains why it doesn’t affect this document. I think that’s a good example.

However, the interviewer then says words to the effect that he doesn’t even know what the letters mean and I think this might be linked to Goldacre going on to give a bright line distinction between people who genuinely don’t know where to find information (people aren’t born knowing this stuff and that is a problem) and those who say it because it sounds better than “I don’t care enough to look it up”. I think the access to information thing has to go both ways, especially if the other party has access to Google. If we’re talking about snooker and I mention a “cue” that’s not necessarily because I’m trying to exclude you with jargon, it just might be that I assumed you knew a wee bit about the basics before entering the conversation.

I’m no good at French horn but that’s because I’ve never even attempted to do it.