Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Bad Science and LBC

Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre) is someone I first became aware of through his excellent Guardian column, which I used to read when I picked up a copy of the newspaper.

Ben's central belief (explained here more fully) is that newsrooms are effectively run by clueless humanities graduates who wouldn't know how to question the scientific veracity of the nutritional claims on the side of a cereal packet.

Ben decided to take a stand when he realised that uninformed media reporting was actively damaging public debate over important scientific issues.

This had three main effects:

1) The degrading of the reputation of scientists and the practice of science (and it is thanks to science your car works, your cancer is cured and you are reading this blog post. It's not because of religion, or crystals).

2) The growth industry of quacks, alternative healers and pseudo-scientists who spout stuff that sounds right, provide a few of their own case studies and suddenly find themselves on television making fortunes from credulous members of the public.

3) The real danger to individual lives a growing ignorance of science can foster, particularly when making decisions about things like medical care and immunisation.

Unfortunately, whilst science in its purest form can do incredible things, lead to astounding discoveries and regularly changes our lives for the better, it has too often been used as a business tool by those who only wish to see scientific progress if it grows markets and makes profits. When this works together for the benefit of humanity it is a truly wondrous thing.

When it is misappropriated to grow market share, it sucks (read this blog entry on pharmaceutical happy drugs (SSRIs) by a traumatised user). But the swing against the received wisdom of science in recent decades has been horrendous.

All sorts of extraordinary hippy shit has not only been given credence by its media exposure, but it started gaining a toe-hold amongst politicians and academics who gave it the credibility it craves. This week's Private Eye quotes course notes from a University of Westminster undergraduate module on vibrational medicine which reveals students are taught the following "[amethyst] emits high yin energy so transmuting lower energies and clearing and aligning energy disturbances at all levels of being".

The article is reprinted on the excellent Improbable Science website which is a prime example of scientists belatedly, and at last successfully, taking the fight to the quacks.

So Ben Goldacre decided to draw a line in the sand. Adopting the cunning guise of the very humanities graduates he aims to expose (despite being a practising NHS doctor and one time visiting researcher in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Milan), Ben comes across like an affable, articulate and determinedly bemused debunker of pseudo-science.

He writes well, he speaks engagingly and he has, I think, been at the forefront of the recent willingness in the media to think a lot harder about repeating claims that don't have any peer-reviewed scientific evidence to back them up.

Knowing this makes it easier to understand Ben's reaction to a recent broadcast by Jeni Barnett on the London commercial talk radio station LBC.

I first found out about it in the popbitch weekly email, and I have pasted the relevant section from that weekly email below:

LBC bloke throws toys out of pram

Guardian Bad Science columnist, Dr Ben Goldacre, recently blogged about an LBC show by Jeni Barnett. Unimpressed by what she was saying about MMR, Goldacre posted up the audio of the show so that his readers could judge it for themselves. LBC got the legal heavies on to him about it. The result? A small story became a huge to-do on the web, newspapers picked up on it and hundreds of blogs around the world took up the story, transcribed Barnett's interview, played the audio etc. One of the station's top execs then rang Goldacre to vent, telling him: "You were on my list of people to contact. I was thinking of giving you your own show... but you've RUINED THAT NOW." Needless to say, we're sure Dr Ben must be heart-broken.


To read Ben's perspective on LBC's legal action take a look at this. To read Ben's version of the above exchange click here and go to the bottom of the entry, but in reality it's an unimportant sideshow, so please don't do it until you've read the whole story.

In short, Ben has played a blinder. He is very much the little guy, the gifted amateur with little other than a) a solid reputation b) a total understanding of the facts c) lots of very bright, very tech-savvy, very influential and opinionated followers.

As things stand this is far from over. Dr Ben's latest entry suggests things might escalate. Questions are being asked in The House, you know.


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