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.