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Bad Science

August 6, 2006

Given that I travel a lot it is easy to get out of touch with events back in Britain. The BBC web site is great and I have feeds for news of Welsh Rugby. Recently I subscribed to the online edition of the Guardian. It’s use of the berliner format was one of the most innovative moves in newspaper design in recent years, and their on line site is excellent. It shows you a page by page picture of the actual paper with easy navigation - and the price is no more than buying the physical edition.

One article attracted me today on bad science. I’ve posted it in this blog. You will also see that the Guardian has set up an email address for examples of bad science. One of my favorite examples of bad or pop science is the very popular left-right brain theory. It appeals to people who want to make a distinction between logic and emotion - itself a continuation of the Kantian split between things we know empirically and things that belong to God. Simplistic dichotomies never appealed to me and I recomend people to William Calvin’s web site which deals with left-right brain theory well as well as having a lot of other useful material.

a story from the Guardian and Observer Digital Edition:
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CERTAIN AREAS OF HUMAN CONDUCT LEND THEM...ves so readily to bad science that you have to wonder if there is a pattern emerging. Last week the parliamentary science and technology committee looked into the ABC classification of illegal drugs, and found it was rubbish. This is not an article about that report, but it is a good place to start: drugs, they found, are supposed to be ranked by harm, in classes A, B, and C, but they're not; and the ranking is supposed to act as a deterrent, but it doesn't.

Watching this small area of prohibition collapse like wet tissue paper got me thinking: how does the world of prohibition match up against our gold standards for bad science, like the nutritionists or the anti-MMR movement? Have any of the prominent academic papers been retracted? Yes, they have. Professor George Ricaurte, funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse, published an article in Science, describing how he administered a comparable recreational dose of ecstasy to monkeys: this dose killed 20% of the monkeys, and another 20% were severely injured.

Even before it was announced — a year later — that they'd got the bottles mixed up and used the wrong drug, you didn't need to be Einstein to know this was duff research, because millions of clubbers have taken the "comparable" recreational dose of ecstasy, and 20% of them did not die. It's no wonder animal rights campaigners manage to persuade themselves that animal research makes a bad model for human physiology.

That's before you even get started on workaday bad science. Like the food gurus, prohibitionists will cherry pick research that suits them, measure inap- propriate surrogate outcomes, and wishfully over-interpret data: a prohibitionist will observe that less cannabis has been seized, and declare that this means there is less cannabis on the streets, rather than less police interest.

For textbook bad science we'd also want to see the media distorting research: overstating the stuff it likes, and ignoring stuff it doesn't, especially negative findings. We used to read a lot about cannabis and lung cancer in the papers. The largest ever study of whether cannabis causes lung cancer reported its findings recently, to total UK media silence. Lifelong cannabis users, who had smoked more than 22,000 joints, showed no greater risk of cancer than people who had never smoked cannabis.

While no journalist has written a single word on that study, the Times did manage to make a front page story headed "Cocaine floods the playground: use of the addictive drug by children doubles in a year," out of their misinterpretation of a government report that showed nothing of the sort.

There are even optimists who believe in quick fix treatments for drug habits — the heroin detox in five days, or painless withdrawal in just 48 hours, under general anaesthesia.

Why are drugs such a bad science magnet? Partly, of course, it's the moral panic. But more than that, sat squarely at the heart of our discourse on drugs, is one fabulously reductionist notion: it is the idea that a complex web of social, moral, criminal, health, and political problems can be simplified to, blamed on, or treated via a molecule or a plant. You'd have a job keeping that idea afloat.

Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk

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For a true digital facsimile of today's Guardian or Observer, please visit the Digital Edition - http://digital.guardian.co.uk

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