Thursday, September 08, 2005

Blinding Me with Bad Science

The folks who look out for bad science have a story in the Guardian online on how science usually makes the news. In popular media, science stories tend to belong to one of three families: wacky stories, scare stories and "breakthrough" stories. Wacky stories include the “scientists have found the formula for” variety (love, winning at blackjack, the perfect way to eat ice-cream) and the paradoxical health story (coffee is good for you) According to the author, paradoxical health stories serve one purpose: “they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.” Scare stories and the problems they foster are all too familiar. “Breakthrough” stories are worrisome because they foster “the idea that science, and indeed the whole empirical world view, is only about tenuous, new, hotly-contested data.” All three kinds of stories make great headlines and sell lots of papers but they rely on little evidence and poor understanding of the significance of the press release that the story is based, the nature of risk, and the nature of the scientific enterprise, for example, blurring the distinction between empirical evidence and scientific hypothesis. They promote the (false) view that because truth is certainty, and science is never certain, we cannot rely on anything science says. Reporting science in these ways is problematic not just because of the poor understanding of the topics and of what-it-is-that-scientists-do-anyway that it generates and nurtures, but because it is potentially dangerous. For a very important discussion on how bad science enters the courtroom and public policy, esp in the US, visit here. To be sure, scientific research is not value neutral and there are perfectly legitimate criticisms of science to be made by non-scientists. The point is that criticism of science must not be based on bad science or poor understanding of what it is that scientists do.