Science reporting in the media is rubbish says thinktank

Tell us something we don’t know: apparently, the Daily Mail is very guilty indeed of publishing dodgy science stories, according to a completely unbiased thinktank sponsored by mobile phone operators. Well, we knew that: just a shame that the source had to be so tainted.

Not going to quibble the point too much at the moment, since there’s blood still coming out of my ears after speaking to someone in Boots today about their ion-emitting hairdryers. Apparently, some hair institute in Bath says they work and the manufacturers wouldn’t produce them if they didn’t…. Dr Ben’s already talked about this but it’s now almost impossible to buy hairdryers that don’t have special ‘ion emitters’ as far as I can see. Sigh.

Charlie identifies another potential Bad Science recipient

Thanks (as always) to Charlie Brooker for another of his weekly columns in The Guardian. This time he singles out Liz Jones of the Standard for her tossy, pretentious column and this particular piece of stupidity that should give Ben Goldacre on Bad Science an absolute field-day if he ever touches it with a ten-foot bargepole.

She’s fine now. The same column goes on to describe how her depression was cured by a “psychic healer” based in Harley Street, who uses “sonar energy and quasar light (you don’t actually hear sound or see light) to draw out negative energy from your body, realign your chakras and straighten out the kinks in your polarised magnetic grid … it could be the best £125 I’ve ever spent”.

Can you see the blood coming out of my ears from where you are?

The Standard, incidentally, is the sister paper of the Daily Mail – the newpaper science forgot (or at least was refused entry to).

Two reviews of one TV programme on the same web site

I hear a tale that at the Daily Mail, two reporters are always sent to cover each story: they interview the same people (or maybe different people), they do the same research and then they write their articles. The editors compare them the better article is used, maybe with parts lifted from the lesser piece.

Spiked now appears to be following the same philosophy by having two people review The Root of All Evil, that eye-poppingly silly programme Richard Dawkins presented on Channel 4 on Monday that tried to claim religion was the cause of all the world’s problems.

Now being an atheist myself but having gone to Christian schools since the age of four, I’m aware of the arguments on both sides and know it’s not as clear cut an issue as Dawkins would have us belief. Jesus or Mohammed may well turn up tomorrow and say, “Yes, I know the evidence in my favour was very flimsy and mostly contradictory. But guess what? I am the son of God, so there.” Can you prove they won’t? No, you can’t. You can’t prove a negative: it’s just a matter of faith, based on probabilities and past experience that they won’t. Personally, my money’s on Buddha though, but I’m just a contrarian.

Indeed, Dawkins’ frothings have gone past the point of usefulness. Where once he used to spell out the case for evolution so that even those with no biology education could see how it was all really, really obvious and well supported, now he just struts about sneering at people and tarnishing the relatively good name of atheism. All that does is convince believers and abstainers alike that atheists are a bunch of arrogant nobs who think we know it all and have nothing but contempt for others who “can’t think as clearly as we do”. Honestly, true believers, we’re not all like that.

Demolishing a programme in which the host just sits there, driven so angry with rage at the ‘stupidity’ of everyone he meets that his face starts to glow and he’s incapable of speech, shouldn’t be hard. Yet while the science correspondent at Spiked delivers a well reasoned and well written critique of the programme, the TV reviewer has chosen to launch his inaugural column with a stream of pretentious piffle that’s impossible to wade through. Amazing. I’d suggest they swap jobs but the fewer arts graduates writing about science the better, I reckon. Maybe the science guy could do the TV reviewing as well.

For once, the former Living Marxism should take a leaf out of the Daily Mail’s book and remember to drop the rubbish version of the article, not publish it and give it greater prominence. Fat chance though.

Ben Goldacre exaggerating about arts graduates and science journalism? Actually, no

One of the frequent complaints made by people about Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in The Guardian is his tendency to disparage arts graduates, particularly those that write about science for mainstream publications. Goldacre argues that they really don’t know what they’re talking about, give incorrect explanations for things and generally give science a bad image, with their constant fixation on “formulae for x” where x is the perfect Christmas pudding, relationship, film, CMOS substrate, etc.

Not wishing to generalise, however, I’ve tended to side with the complainants. But today has been an eye-opening day.

I took my wife’s car in to be MOTed this morning. She’s off for a weekend with her girlfriends and since she’ll be working non-stop for the next week or so, she won’t have any time to take it in herself. I got to the garage at 8am, dead on. Normally (I did this the previous two years as well), it takes a couple of hours for them to run all the checks, and since the garage is in the middle of nowhere, I wait there while they do them. This time, however, it took until 11.30.

I hadn’t planned for this. My laptop gave out before I’d watched even one DVD of Peter Brook’s five-hour The Mahabharata. I messed up the Sudoku on my Palm Pilot. Tetris got boring after a while. So I started reading the papers. I started with The Times, which turns out to be duller and stupider than I remember.

First off, the telecoms correspondent said that WiMax was faster than WiFi because it had a speed of 8Mbps. Last time I looked, eight was less than eleven which is the rated speed of WiFi. Sigh.

But then the health correspondent claimed that electroshock therapy was being used more often than before because the stigma it had gained from One Flew of the Cuckoo’s Nest had nearly worn off – not because they’d improved its application, started using anaesthetic and muscle relaxant, etc, although a handy box-out did at least mention those vital sub-points.

So I started to think maybe Mr Goldacre had a point. Then I picked up the Daily Mail.

Hatred of the Daily Mail is compulsory for many liberal and left-leaning people, myself included. Many people hate it because of the things they think are in it, without even having read it. I remember a former colleague’s look of amazement after she’d read a copy. “It’s even worse than I ever thought possible,” she explained. Those of us who had read it nodded sagely. My hatred for the evil rag stems from my actual familiarity with its contents.

So it really was my own fault. I knew the veins were going to start throbbing in my head before I’d even started; I just didn’t know at what point.

It was Melanie Phillips’ column. Phillips had already been the target of one of Goldacre’s columns, in which he’d pointed out the absurd levels of ignorance she had exposed in a piece on MMR. But today she surpassed herself.

Apparently, the discovery that plants produce methane even when not decomposing shows that “scientists” aren’t to be trusted. If they can’t get this right, over “the second most important” greenhouse gas, then how can they be trusted to get climate change analysis right, Phillips wonders? She then explains how climatology uses computer models that can’t be trusted, and that those who believe in climate change are really just anti-American and anti-business.

Having been an Americo-phile (is that even a word?) from an early age, I took exception to this anyway. But the sheer levels of jaw-dropping, vacant idiocy involved in this took me aback. Philliips, who I suspect lacks scientific qualifications of any kind (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) and who knows the subject so well that she doesn’t appreciate that methane is a greater greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, feels equipped to judge the vast amounts of evidence and work that’s gone into climatology and climate change research in general.

Not only that, but she seems to be under the impression that one group of scientists does all the research in all fields (“Hi, my name’s Dr Steve PhD, and when I’m not trying to invent cold fusion techniques in this lab, I create polymers next door, investigate plant species and cellular mytosis over there and model climate change in the computer lab up there”).

In Phillips’ world, because biologists have discovered something unknown about plants, that means climatologists can’t be trusted. Wow. That makes sense. Using the same argument, I immediately deduced that because the features editor of Daily Mail has run an article on why the Bible code is all true, none of the paper’s movie reviews can be trusted.

In a sane world or on a sane newspaper, the Daily Mail‘s editor would have killed the column as soon as he saw it and told her to write about what she knows, not what she clearly doesn’t. But he didn’t. And I just know that there’s at least two Mail readers who have come away from that article thinking they’re now better informed than ‘the common herd’ as a result of it. Bastards.

If I become Prime Minister, my first job will be to pass a law that only science graduates can write about science in magazines and newspapers. Or elect Ben Goldacre PM: he’s right about them, you know.

Ad standards body clamps down on Chinese medicine claims

The Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that a leaflet claiming Chinese medicine is safer that conventional medicine and can cure 66 conditions, including lung cancer and depression, was both dangerous and misleading.

QFS.

While not up there with Mr Yous(o/a)ff in turns of silliness, that’s a pretty dumb series of statements to make in a leaflet. Even China’s clamping down on unsubstantiated claims from practitioners, although it only started to draw the line when people started to make claims for immortality.

I hope the Authority next turns its attention to Dr Gillian and others who make similar, albeit lesser unsubstantiated claims for their products. I doubt it, given Channel 4’s and mainstream resellers’ endorsements of the modern-day snake-oil saleswoman. But I can hope…