Archive for Science

Science and Politics

Posted in Politics, Science with tags , on April 2, 2010 by pieman70

This post has been running around in my head for a while.  Doubt that will improve on its clarity, consistency or how well argued it is.

I’ve been reading the book Bogus Science by John Grant.  In its introduction it covers an interesting case of politics vs. science.  Post-war America, and there is a shortage of lead.  This leads to a search for additives that could expand the life of lead acid batteries.  There were many of these on the market and so the National bureau of Standards conducted testing.  All the additives failed to improve the performance of batteries and most faded away, all except one, called AD-X2, the difference was not that AD-X2 actually worked, it was every bit as useless as its competitors, but the man in charge was good at lobbying politicians.  The case for whether AD-X2 worked spanned administrations, cost hundreds of thousands of tax dollars and demanded re-tests and resignations.  All because politicians thought for some reason that persuasive debate could alter the results of an empirical scientific test.

Oddly enough, although with somewhat less open and shut tests, this continues in present day UK.

The first is the recent Parliamentary Sci Tech Committee Evidence Check on Homeopathy.  This was purely a committee established to check for evidence on the effectiveness of Homeopathy.  Unsurprisingly for anyone with a smidgen of knowledge on the subject the evidence check revealed Homeopathy to be no better than a placebo and advised on removing NHS funding.  This has been blogged by better men than me including Ben Goldacre, The Quackometer and David Colquhoun.

The Society of Homeopaths reacted badly, badly in the way that every world religion might if a parliamentary evidence check deemed the existence of God unlikely, or indeed badly as if someone had just seriously threatened a major stream of revenue.  (Of course not, that would be cynical)  They threw around accusations and smears about those involved and, well I’d advise you to read the blogs above for more on this.

Anyway, one of the things they managed was to convince an MP to put forward an Early Day motion expressing concerns.  The MP, David Tredinnik, who claimed for astrology software on expenses and wanted to use distance healing as health policy.  Obviously a sharp scientific mind.  Now this doesn’t really matter, EDMs aren’t debated and rarely amount to anything, however it has attracted the signatures of over 60MPs.  What this demonstrates is that regardless of evidence, and this was a check on evidence, not opinion or anecdote, it takes very little to get an MP to sign an EDM, yes that’s how desperate for votes they are.  Worse was probably the Lib Dems, who had quiet a few signatories, and who came out with the final fallback for the person who knows deep down they’re not going to win on evidence “More Evidence is needed” Oh yes, the Oil Company favourite “More research is needed” is one of the most obvious stalling tactics, and would suit the SoH and its ilk fine.  Apparently 200 years of research where the only trials showing Homeopathy better than a placebo are badly run small trials.  Any well organised large trial shows no better than placebo, so are we back to AD-X2 with Homeopathy, keep testing until you get the result we want?  Regardless what we do know is an MP will always take votes over evidence.

The second to come to mind is of course the humorously named Nut sack affair.  For those who came in late, the government’s chief scientific advisor did a big round up on the evidence for harm caused by drugs.  His report was based purely on scientific research but demonstrated that many currently illegal drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy were in fact safer than Alcohol.  As this went against two very important things, the governments current drugs policy upgrading the classification on cannabis, and more importantly, disputing the mainstream media’s view that “Drugs are Bad, except for Alcohol and tobacco which have wealthy backing” the government decided not to follow the recommendations.  Nutt was clearly tired of being ignored for what was basically political reasons and so revealed his findings publicly, for his trouble he was sacked and we had to put up with a cross party harrumph from MPs about how they were elected to lead and these scientists should bloody well keep their facts to themselves.

This demonstrated one of the unshakable truths of when science and government collide.  No amount of evidence can beat a policy that will upset the views of the right wing press consensus and therefore middle England, (or as described by some ministers “We have to consider many other factors”).  Sadly this is the major problem evidence based policy faces, from the mounting evidence that sending petty criminals to jail merely acts as a gateway for greater offences (And the lambasting that a Scottish Justice secretary got for suggesting not sending many minor offenders to jail is evidence of this) to drugs policy the evidence clearly shows that science can find out what it likes but should be prepared to be ignored if it doesn’t fit existing government policy.

Pie Man’s Guide to Science in the Press

Posted in Media, Science with tags , on January 26, 2009 by pieman70

This site is a great deconstruction of a particularly woeful attempt as Science by a Journalist who clearly has no idea bout the subject. This is becoming an all to common issue.

Now, before I start, I should shoot myself in the foot. This subject is covered far better in the following blogs.
And many, many more (Take a peek at who I’m following if that’s possible rather than putting together a page of links)

Anyway, following these sites for some time really gives you an impression of how poor science reporting in the media is. And in particular reporting on health related stories.

Previously health news didn’t bother me. I was unfit, drank too much and ate the wrong foods, however now I have a child, and so while I still refuse to take too much responsibility in keeping myself running I am quite concerned about how to keep my daughter safe. And this is the problem. Ben Goldacre of bad science fame hits the nail on the head when he states that the press are only interested in 3 types of science news, The Miracle Cure, The Hidden Threat and “Crazy Boffins do something Mad”. It also doesn’t help that most Journalists see themselves as crusaders uncovering the Truth, when in fact, due to that requiring effort, they do little more than re-word press releases. This is why with all health stories. In fact, with all stories, you should check the facts yourself. However since people are concerned parents wondering if its safe to let your child near a wi-fi modem, I’ll try as far a possible to stick to health.

SO, there is a story, reported in several papers and on TV that eating a bacon sandwich a day will make you really healthy. Now, we’re all busy people (Well you are) so we don’t have time to go on to pubmed and look for the peer reviewed paper published in a reputable journal. Its a shame that the online sources don’t provide a link as it would at least show that the research has been looked at and had it methodology scrutinised as well as the interpretation of results. Regardless we can’t check there, we need some easy information. Now, don’t google, due to the way google presents results you could well be directed to a site that misleads, for example to the World Bacon Producer’s website, which would mysteriously tell you that its true, fried bacon is good for you. Instead there are two websites that are your friend. This lot really deserve more recognition. A simple goal to try and give out solid information about science. Check to see if they have anything on the subject.

Second should be a no-brainer yes, believe it or not, particularly in the case of health scares, they really try to get the real info out there. They even have a very interesting “Behind the Headlines” feature.

However, these two try their best, they can;t cover every idiot story. So first look is Dr*T’s guide to consumer science as a starter

But failing that, we finally get to my real guide, things that should raise warning signs.

1. Does this sound plausible. When you look at things like magnet therapy, does it really sound likely. This is open to your understanding of science but a good start

2. Is a study referred to? Again not often, for facts like that are not for the likes of us, but sometimes a university is quoted, look to see if the University is crowing about miracle breakthroughs.

3. Is there some claim of conspiracy. The Alternative health and the Anti-Vaccination crowds love to think that there is some big pharmaceutical conspiracy suppressing their efforts. However all conspiracies, in fact most things in general should be treated with skepticism. Journalists like conspiracies, because it looks like they’re exposing the truth rather than re-hashing a press release. In reality, most people shout conspiracy when all evidence has proven their case false.

4. Does it claim to drastically change our understanding of science, because if it does it better have some really good evidence and if that’s not even present then be sceptical.

5. Does it pander to your base desires. Beer is good for you, Fatty food makes us fitter, Burning fossil fuels actually makes trees grow, The Cake is not a lie. Its nice to think all these things are true, but in reality its usually the results of a poor to non-existent study by the marketing board of Carling/McDonalds/Shell/Aperture Science.

I hope this ramble will add my voice to trying to get people to understand a bit more about the absolute twaddle that regularly appears on our news reports about science, and perhaps shames a few journalists into doing some research (Any) before they report.

Again, just to re-iterate, if you’ve found this rant rambling or otherwise badly done, please look at the linked websites that do a far better job than I ever could.