Although I confidentially wrote a mere two blog posts ago about how much I loved book club, a part of me is clearly in a full-scale rebellion against all of that fiction since last week I ordered both Queueing for Beginners and Bad Science in a non-fiction book buying ‘spree’ (albeit not a numerically very impressive one). The former, by Joe Moran, was actually set for my final essay last term and is just a huge amount of fun, so it should be good to have around in the unlikely event that somebody comes running to me demanding to know more about the history of everyday life. But Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre, is a more important and thus even more wonderful book.
The Bad Science ‘brand’ has actually been around for a while, most prominently as a column in the Guardian, and it’s well worth looking at its own website for more. Essentially, Ben Goldacre is a doctor who devotes some of his life to exposing and debunking a few examples from the vast world of journalistic rubbish written about science, and health in particular. The book is designed to ‘help everyone become a more effective bullshit detector’ (according to the nice quote on the front) and it helpfully outlines everything you need to know to investigate ‘scientific’ claims for yourself. Sadly, it’s also the kind of book which I read – think “but I knew all that!” – and then fail to convince anyone who doesn’t to read it or take it seriously. *sigh*
(It also seems deeply and unsettlingly ironic that now two of my favourite books, The Rebel Sell and Bad Science, tackle psychological issues, logical fallacies and general reasons why people believe strange and untrue things, and of course confirmation bias – or picking out things which agree with what you already believe – is top of the list. But oh no! Isn’t that exactly what I’m doing? I certainly can’t deny that reading things which cleverly and wittily argue things I already believe makes me happy. And whilst it is really annoying when people conceive of great conspiracy theories which they alone can perceive – MMR will kill me! Everyone is so conformist and doesn’t think for themselves! – does being ‘one of the few’ (ahem) to debunk those ideas morph into being exactly the same thing? Argh! The perils!)
But seriously, Bad Science touches me deeply because it taps into one of the things I find most depressing of all in the world: attitudes to science. And I say this in the position of not being a scientist myself. I’m hugely ignorant about (statistically speaking) around 100% of how things work, and so are most people. But so what? Just because you don’t understand any one particular scientific theory, why does that have to impair an understanding of science itself – which is, I try to say again and again and again, a method, not a body of facts. Science is so often accused of being:
which I just utterly fail to understand. To take them one by one:
(a) scientific explanations are invariably more interesting than any ‘alternatives’. As Bad Science notes along with many other people, evolution is just simply a more interesting thing than creationism. The placebo effect is so, so much cooler than rubbish like homoeopathy. In fact, why people believe homoeopathy in the first place is vastly more interesting than homoeopathy.
(b) science is the only system of knowledge acquisition I can think of which is not just perpetually changing but has perpetual change built right in. Any theory can be toppled with enough evidence, and the real business of science is lots of human, utterly fallible scientists all shouting and disagreeing with each other. For some entirely inexplicable reason, this is ‘closed-minded’.
(c) when someone asks me to fix their computer, I tend to keep everything the same apart from one thing which is changed. So if the ‘Internet isn’t working’, you don’t buy a new router and network adaptor, reinstall Windows and switch broadband providers all in one go and then see if it works again. Obviously. I was taught to try and keep all variables bar one the same in something like Year 4, and surely that’s just common sense anyway. And science should make sense most of the time, since it’s only trying to describe the same real world that we all live in. Even when it initially seems counterintuitive, it shouldn’t be too hard to see beyond that. After all, just about everyone in the world has marvelled over the optical illusion where one line looks longer than the other, and people don’t walk away from that confused.
Anyway. Just read the book
(And finally, in the interests of showing that science is not about the inevitable fallacies of individual scientists, here’s one paragraph from the book which, to quote the sensible person who noted it, “commits many of the sins he spends a whole book castigating bad reporters of science about in just one paragraph”.)