Grumpy Accountant

Bad Science

For a long time now, I’ve enjoyed Ben Goldacre’s regular Saturday column in the Guardian.    In more recent times, I’ve enjoyed the occasional visit to his website, Bad Science.     Last week, I began reading his book of the same name, in which, among other things, he castigates pedlars of scientific opinion as fact and illustrates with startling clarity the way in which skilful PR so often overcomes truth.

Having read only a few chapters of the book, two things strike me with some force:

Firstly, how truth is manipulated with “sciency” words to create convincing alternative realities for no reason other than to generate super profits – or, to use the alternative description, add value – for example, wrinkle removers with some convincingly named super chemical.

Secondly, how the effectiveness of these manipulations depends on our gullibility or ignorance.

This seems to me to have alarming parallels in politics, where the Dave and George show in particular wants us to believe in their commitment to the NHS and selected other public services while simultaneously proposing massive cuts in government spending.     How does that work guys?

Another useful pointer in Bad Science is how a conclusion based on common sense – a phrase used so often to mean I can’t be bothered to think about it – is very often demonstrated by deeper analysis to be incorrect.    For example, claims that a particular chemical or substance  reduces specific health risks are sometimes debunked by further analysis of the effects of that chemical or substance on other health risks – which turn out to be far more damaging than the risk initially averted.        This sounds to me like the argument over whether the government should spent more or tighten its belt.    The intuitive response may well be “we must live within our means” whereas the people recognised by their peers to have completed meaningful further analysis have pointed out that that intuitive response will only make the economic situation even worse.

I claim no expertise in economics but I know which of PR glitz or informed analysis I’d rather rely on.


17/08/2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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