Battling Bad Science

Friday, July 05, 2013


Stories about new innovations in health appear almost daily in the media, but the claims are frequently overblown, misleading, or completely false. In a TED talk from July, 2011, journalist Ben Goldacre talks about how to spot and avoid bad science.


Ben Goldacre

Comments [8]

Paul Landraitis from Paul from Seattle

Yes, he’s a little hard to follow, but Ben Goldacre's talk stands out for its succinctness and wit. He gets to the heart of a very important matter. My favorite section: "Unpicking the evidence behind dodgy claims is not a kind of nasty, carping activity. Real science is all about critically appraising the evidence for somebody else's position...” (In scientific institutions it is normal and people) “…welcome it. It's like a kind of consenting intellectual SM activity." lol Daniel Kahneman's work (Thinking Fast and Slow) reveals part of the reason this statement is much more than a clever analogy. Human beings (me included) generally find it very effortful, and basically unpleasant, to actually think scientifically for more than a few minutes at a time. Statistical reasoning is not something our intuitive mind is good at. It is slow and requires great concentration. We have to exert willpower and maintain awareness at every step to resist our fast, automatically produced, emotionally tinged assessments. Fifty Shades of Gray notwithstanding, I don’t expect to ever see a widespread embrace of truly evidence-based thinking in public discourse. I think Bob and Brooke make it about as palatable as it is likely to get. I’m thankful OTM exists, and I can get my weekly hit of intellectual SM narrowcasting…

Jul. 13 2013 07:56 PM
LauraD from North Carolina

Science doesn't fit the superficiality of journalism, which is to 'sell' a 'story' to the reader, through oversimplification, headlines, hype and drama.

Most readers and viewers are equally superficial, and overlook the inevitable disclaimers and the reporter's CYA'isms that occur far below the headlines and lead, saying in effect, that, 'This study proves nothing, and is simply one tiny piece of evidence, suggesting one tiny fact about an enormously complicated multifaceted issue.' Most journalists haven't had a lick of scientific training in their entire lives, beyond yawning through their 9th grade biology labs.

Jul. 11 2013 09:39 AM
Sandra Marlow from North Carolina

Your speaker Ben Goldacre, speaks too quickly, and was difficult to completely

Jul. 09 2013 05:15 PM
JohnB from Minneapolis

Enjoyed your show very much today. I think the same analysis of reports often found in the media and peer reviewed journals on the topic of man-made global warming would likely be thoroughly enlightening. The economic and social costs of implementing programs to lower green house gas effects have had profound effects on the economy based on a great deal of unverifiable theories. I know I'm wasting my time with this post... But I think you'd produce an equally compelling story if you dare to do so.

Jul. 07 2013 08:57 PM
Patricia M. Malarkey from El Cerrito, CA

Dear All,

I'd like to echo Andrew Carlson from Massachusetts and his criticism of Bob Garfield's statement, "we may not care whether our pastor gets his degree or certification from a diploma mill, but we do care if a scientist does the same."

As a seminarian at an accredited graduate theological school, I believe we ought to care A LOT about where our pastor gets his - or her - degree and certification!

Congregations built on diploma-mill pastors and faked credentials are "cults of personality" - like Jim Jones, the Branch Davidians and apocalyptic churches.

Accredited seminaries provide pastors to their denominations who have gone through rigorous training, testing, education and evaluation.

Parishioners ABSOLUTELY should care where their pastor's degree - and spiritual orientation - come from. The pastor / congregation relationship is truly a matter of life-and-death; it is not something to be taken lightly - as Bob Garfield did in this story.

I am disappointed in NPR for not editing this story better.

- Patricia M. Malarkey, MASC student at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA.

Jul. 07 2013 05:55 PM
lindapall from Moscow, Idaho

Ben Goldacre's commentary hit the mark at the bull's eye. Having spent 8 1/2 months during the past year in various high-end (is there any other kind?) ICUs in the Pacific Northwest with a bouquet of system failures, I can tell you that drugs, hospitals, doctors and other health professionals often engage in this percentage recovery/treatment dance but the absolutely most culpable are the drug companies! If red wine really were a miracle cure of you-name-it, I ought to be totally reclaimed until I'm about 150 years old!

What IS the case, is the fact that with ordinary reasonable care and concern and good medical attention AND with a lot of hard work and luck on my part, slowly but surely I can crawl back to recovery. The good news is I AM recovering but the bad news, folks, is there are very few silver bullets out there and, for the most part, the pharmaceutical industry is usually not the deliverer of the truth when there IS one. Keep segments like this in the forefront of science media coverage... science education is not up to the job in many areas of the US.

Linda Pall

Jul. 07 2013 05:29 PM
Andrew Carlson from Massachusetts

Superb show, as always, but I must take you to task for a quick, throw-away line Bob Garfield made in his solitary interview. Specifically, my paraphrase is "we may not care whether our pastor gets his degree or certification from a diploma mill, but we do care if a scientist does the same." Coming in an article questioning the costs of validating fraudulent or manipulative claims in new ideas, this statement not only possibly reveals Mr. Garfield's bias against religion, but it illustrates the very problem underlying some peoples' inclination toward fraudulent validation. Specifically, that society accepts certain premises as established fact, rather than an ongoing, open debate on the "truths" of our world. Why is the parent who is skeptical about the safety of multiple vaccinations at one time guilty of poor judgement? Could we not also claim that indifference toward the credentials of pastors is of similar risk to society, especially when many members of our society continue having faith in a higher being? So long as society believes certain lines of questioning our reality are closed or invalid, we open the door to charlatans of ALL stripes peddling their questionable wares. Mr. Garfield may believe that religion is of questionable worth (and thus, not worthy of valuing good or accurate credentialing.) But if we don't hold all professions to the same standards, aren't we guilty of biasing their validity on the basis of some having greater authority than others? (I believe that was one of the points made in the article as a basis for poor science.)What's good for the goose is good for the gander, I'd say. Thank you.

Jul. 06 2013 08:47 AM
Jessie Henshaw from Way Uptown

It's great that you’re giving us a look into these kinds of systematic blind spots in science. We have them in the knowledge we trust frequently, and our trusteed cultural beliefs. We keep these kinds of deep misunderstandings for long periods sometimes. Evidence of broad cultural misunderstanding couldn’t be more clear than in we are still so devoted to an economic model of the earth as *always being infinite*, and our prosperity requiring consumption of it growing ever faster.

One fascinating related evidence of simply "bad science" I've studied concerns how the world standard metrics for environmental impacts are designed. They actually record “impacts” by *where they occur*, rather than by *who uses and pays for them*! That's like a person “watching their diet” and only counting the food they eat at home, and counting the food they eat at restaurants as on the restaurant's diet!!

It might seem amazing, but that error has literally become lodged within the core principles of sustainability,... serving to totally confuse any theory of accountability for our impacts on the earth you might come up with!

Jul. 05 2013 09:00 PM

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