Sep 8, 2005

bad 'bad science'

for a good long while one of my favourite columns in The Grauniad has been Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, a beautiful weekly snipe at the mindless nonsense that forms almost all science journalism. With everyone's favourite mistake ridden rag about to sumersault into the realm the modern newspaper this week my friend gets a whole double paged spread to wax lyrical about what's wrong with science reporting.

his central thesis seems fairly sound one in my mind. that what passes for science in newspapers is an infantile parody of science that sees white coated figures appearing from a basement laboratory intermittently to declare a new breakthrough/danger/piece of fluff nonsense about the formula for the perfect boiled egg.

So how do the media work around their inability to deliver scientific evidence? They use authority figures, the very antithesis of what science is about, as if they were priests, or politicians, or parent figures. "Scientists today said ... scientists revealed ... scientists warned." And if they want balance, you'll get two scientists disagreeing, although with no explanation of why. One scientist will "reveal" something, and then another will "challenge" it. A bit like Jedi knights.

So far so good.

However, it seems young benny (or old ben... though i've always imagined him to be statuesque thirty-something in a pair of designer glasses) should stick to his single column of well worded sarcasm. the longer he gos on the more that he seeks to place the blame for this cartoon science at the hands of some absurd 'humanities graduate' conspiracy. in fact, for someone who has spent the last few years (and indeed most of this article) picking apart the oversimplification of science, Goldacre tumbles into the most blatant display of crap reductionism. starting by claiming that scientists (or people who know a bit about science)
only people who are actually going to read science articles anyway, goldacre then constructs a grotesque caricature of the humanities graduate, languidly relaxing with a cigarillo and a glass of port, waxing lyrical on the absence of truth while leafing through a book of keatsian odes.

the humanities haven't really moved forward at all, except to invent cultural relativism, which exists largely as a pooh-pooh reaction against science. And humanities graduates in the media, who suspect themselves to be intellectuals, desperately need to reinforce the idea that science is nonsense: because they've denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of western thought for 200 years, and secretly, deep down, they're angry with themselves over that.

I don't need to explain quite how absurd this nonsense is. i don't need to point out that the notion of a cultural battlefield, sciences on one side the humanities on the other, with a no-man's land of silence between the two, is, well, bollocks. and i don't think i need to explain this to my young friend at the guardian either. he is clearly aware of quite how clever it is to counter the parodisation of science in the media with a merry little parody of the humanities himself. didn't anyone ever tell our friend that two wrongs don't make a right?

it's a shame really because goldacre is clearly an intellegent and eloquent enough character that he could take a good stab at reducing the constructed gulf between 'science' and 'the arts' and in doing so greatly improve the coverage of science in the media.

but i guess then he'd be out of the job.

at least i now know that, while not maybe being the grecian figure of my imagination, young benjamin is apparently 'an all right-looking bloke'. well, good for him.


Anonymous said...

Yes, but I think he may have a point. As an emerging economist I feel I sit firmly in the centre of the science-humanity spectrum. I can't stand it when some moany politics graduate makes ignorant comments about inflation that he picked up from skimming Anatole Kaletsky. At the same time I get frustrated with economists who use obscure models which rely on the most unrealistic of assumptions purely for mathematical convenience and then claim to 'prove' truths about human nature. In the words of, I believe Rene Descartes "Au fin du jour, c'est un jeu de deux demis et les garcons nous ont fait fiers." Barely a truer word uttered.

Andrew Field said...

do you think he'd be interested in the england managers job?

i have a feeling its going begging.