Category Archive: Bad Science

Harper Perennial: 2009.

An interesting thought: people aren’t stupid

I don’t generally talk or write about being a doctor – it’s mawkish and tedious, and I’ve no desire to preach from author­ity – but working in the NHS you meet patients from every conceivable walk of life, in huge numbers, discussing some of the most important issues in their lives. This has consistently taught me one thing: people aren’t stupid. Anybody can understand anything, as long as it is clearly explained – but more than that, if they are sufficiently interested. What determines an audience’s understanding is not so much scientific knowledge, but motivation: patients who are ill, with an important decision to make about treatment, can be very motivated indeed.

But journalists and miracle-cure merchants sabotage this process of shared decision-making, diligently, brick by brick, making lengthy and bogus criticisms of the process of systematic review (because they don’t like the findings of just one), extrapolating from lab-dish data, misrepresenting the sense and value of trials, carefully and collectively under­mining the nation’s understanding of the very notion of what it means for there to be evidence for an activity. In this regard they are, to my mind, guilty of an unforgivable crime. [335]

The “baffled boffins” narrative

My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of sci­ence, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they have denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought from the past two hundred years; but there is an attack implicit in all media coverage of science: in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science. On this template, science is portrayed as groundless, incompre­hensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality; they do work that is either wacky or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory, probably going to change soon and, most ridiculously, ‘hard to understand’. Having created this parody, the commentariat then attack it, as if they were genuinely critiquing what science is all about. [225]