Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Good Science

"I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that." - Ben Goldacre

I've just finished reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, an excellent analysis of science scares, quacks and how things go wrong when the media report on science, with a particular emphasis on medical matters (he's a doctor). The book was nominated for the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction. As the quote above indicates, he also explores the problems that can arise even in good science - a very healthy approach, I think.

The book has chapters on homeopathy, the placebo effect, 'experts' like Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford (Check out HolfordWatch), amongst others. Superb stuff, and scary too.

I particularly liked the chapter on Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things. You'll have to buy the book to read the full details, but I'll list the five reasons Goldacre cites for not trusting one's intuition, however tempting it may be.

1. We see patterns where there is only random noise.
2. We see causal relationships where there are none.
3. We overvalue confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
4. We seek out confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
5. Our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased by our previous beliefs.

Add to that availability and social influences, and you have a recipe for the irrational. As Goldacre says:
It's not safe to let our intuitions and prejudices run unchecked and unexamined; it's in our interest to challenge these flaws in intuitive reasoning wherever we can, and the methods of science and statistics grew up specifically in opposition to these flaws.
One often hears the charge that rationalists harbour prejudices just as theists and other 'magical' thinkers do. Well, that's true, but that's why there is a scientific method. When another method comes along that recognises those prejudices as the scientific method does, then we may have something to challenge it. There *is* no other method currently; therefore, what is discovered by science can claim greater epistemic value than anything discovered by another. Where there is a contradiction, we must accept the scientific outcome, if we are acting reasonably.

To expand on the graphic at the top of the story, consider this version, courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley.


  • AllanW says:
    24 September 2009 at 02:42

    Nice post. The particular points Goldacre makes in those chapters reinforced the views I picked up from reading the 'Black swan' stuff by Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently.

    As humans we should be accepting by now that our perceptions of the world around us are not perfect (for all the reasons you list above). So why would anyone reject the methods of logic, reason and the scientific method which have been developed over thousands of years specifically to counteract our flawed perceptions and yield reliable, accurate data and theories?

    It beggars belief that people still cling to ideas and 'facts' despite these tools having shown repeatedly that their perceptions are faulty. Is it a lack of honesty or is it fear or a combination of both?

  • Mark Jones says:
    24 September 2009 at 02:57

    Thanks Allan.

    I think the honest ones don't like the begging the question involved - using *reason* to justify *reason*. But we are all begging the question at bottom, because we don't have access to reality, except through our senses. But that's why I liked this that you wrote elsewhere:

    "It is a bottom-up, evolved, researched and practical tool of human brains that helps to bring some degree of understanding and order out of the seeming-chaos of the physical reality of our lives."

    Exactly. Over millenia, it's proved to be the most reliable tool at our disposal. Doesn't mean it's perfect, just the best we have, and its achievements are astonishing. We should use our best tools.

  • AllanW says:
    24 September 2009 at 03:27

    Yep; rejection of reason and the scientific method usually falls into two camps.

    One; those who crave or need objective certainty. They want the comfort of something that will not change, will always be 'true'. They want an immovable rock to which they can anchor their lives that provides solidity and confidence. These people cannot handle the inherent mutability of our existence. And quite frankly should go live in a cave somewhere or lock themselves in a box until all that nasty 'change' and other stuff that happens stops affecting them. It's a refusal to accept that living a life involves constant change.

    Two; those who fear becoming Mr Spock. They fear that adopting a critical, sceptical, rational viewpoint will inevitably lead them to living solely in a world of cerebral contemplation and reject emotional, earthly, worldy stimulus. They fear that we will become unfeeling robots rather than vibrant human beings. I think that's impossible given the nature of our existence; our physical bodies supply constant sensory stimulation that creates emotional states. You can't escape it! But I think it is an abrogation of your responsibility to live a useful and meaningful life to rely solely on the emotions to guide your behaviour.

    If humans have learned anything it is surely that it is the development of non-instinctive, non-animalistic traits that separates us from our cousins in the animal world.

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