More Bad Science (uncovered)

From Ben Goldacre (15 April 2010)

‘After 2 years of pursuing one man through the courts, at a cost to him of £200,000 and 2 years work, the British Chiropractic Association yesterday dropped their libel case against science writer Simon Singh. The case was over a piece he wrote on this very page, criticising the BCA for claiming that its members could treat children for colic, ear infections, asthma, prolonged crying, and sleeping and feeding conditions by manipulating their spines.’

Read the full article here.

A (non-Orwellian) perspective on language and thought

From Adam Gopnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009):

‘The subject [of this book] is liberal civilization and its language – the way we live now and the way we talk at home and in public. These are essays without an agenda, but this book is not without a thesis. The thesis is that literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization; our heroes should be men and women possessed by the urgency of utterance, obsessed by the need to see for themselves and to speak for us all. Authoritarian societies can rely on an educated elite; mere mass society, on shared dumb show. Liberal cities can’t. A commitment to persuasion is in itself a central liberal principle. New ways of thinking demand new kinds of eloquence. Our world rests on science and democracy, on seeing and saying; it rests on thinking new thoughts and getting them heard by a lot of people….

The point is not that writing well is a proof of thinking clearly. Orwell was wrong about that, sadly. The truth is that plenty of men who have written very well have thought horrible thoughts, and the thoughts have been made to seem less horrible by being well written. No, the point is that when we do come across those who write well and see clearly, we’re right to make them heroes.’

The New Humanism

By Roger Scruton, in The American Spectator:

‘The British Humanist Association is currently running a campaign against religious faith. It has bought advertising space on our city buses, which now patrol the streets declaring that “There probably is no God; so stop worrying and enjoy life.” My parents would have been appalled at such a declaration. From a true premise, they would have said, it derives a false and pernicious conclusion. Had they wished to announce their beliefs—and it was part of their humanism to think that you don’t announce your beliefs but live them—they would have expressed them thus: “There probably is no God; so start worrying, and remember that self-discipline is up to you.” The British Humanist Association sees nothing wrong with the reference to enjoyment; it seems to have no consciousness of what is clearly announced between the lines of the text, namely that there are no ideals higher than pleasure. Its publications imply that there is only one thing that stands between man and his happiness, and that is the belief in God. Take that belief away, and we can run out into the garden of permissions, picking the fruit that we wrongly thought to have been forbidden. The humanists I knew as a young man would have reacted with disgust at this hedonistic message, and at a philosophy that aims to dispense with God without also aiming to replace Him.

BUT THE BUS adverts fit the spirit of modern Britain, and not even the Muslims complain about them. One Christian bus driver has refused to drive his bus, and a few hundred people have written to the Advertising Standards Council, which has rejected their complaint, but that is as far as the protests have gone. When, in the light of this advertising campaign, I look back at the humanist movement that I encountered as an adolescent, one thing above all strikes me: that the old humanism was not about deconstructing God; it was about constructing man. It was a positive movement, devoted to seeking things worthy of emulation and sacrifice, even if there is no God to promote them. Its principal fear was that, deprived of religious belief, people would let go of their ideals. Hence it urgently sought a new basis for moral restraint in the idea of human dignity.’ Read more.

On the importance of reading before theorising

From Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian (21 March 2009):

‘Science is not difficult to explain. Today we will see how British journalists go out of their way to cherry-pick which evidence they cover, and then explain the risks and benefits in what has been shown to be the single most unhelpful way possible.

“Screening all older men for prostate cancer ‘could reduce deaths by a fifth’,” said the Mail. “Prostate cancer hope” said the Mirror. “Calls for new policies on NHS cancer tests” said the Independent. “Prostate cancer screening could cut deaths by 20%” said the Guardian. “Better cancer screening is every man’s right” was the editorial in the Scotsman, where they wound themselves into a froth of indignation.

But was this just British journalists finding something to complain about? Because all around the world, people were saying something completely different, on the same day, about the very same academic publication: “Prostate cancer screening may not reduce deaths” said the Washington Post. “Studies cast doubt on leading prostate cancer test” said USA Today. “PSA testing may not save your life after all” said Scientific American. “Prostate cancer blood test does little to decrease death rate” said the Sydney Morning Herald. And so on.

Why would the American and the Australian journalists say something completely different to the British ones, about the very same evidence?’ Read more.

No more theory in science?

From Sceptical Inquirer, Nov/Dec 2008:

‘Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Although Witty meant this is a very specific context, it is good general advice that should have been followed by Wired magazine’s Chris Anderson. On June 23, 2008, Anderson posted an article titled “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete,” from which it is perfectly clear that he doesn’t understand a thing about science or the scientific method.’

Access the pdf here (NB. not great quality, but readable).

Read the Wired article here.

A New Day for Intellectuals

from the Chronicle of Higher Education (13 Feb, 2009):

‘Soon after election day, the columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in The New York Times that the “second most remarkable thing” about the election was that “American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.”

What goes on here? Was the historian Richard Hofstadter wrong in his classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life to detect an irresistible current in our society of “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it”? Has that current weakened or been sufficiently dammed up to explain the election of a president who is reflective about history and ideas as well as about policy and practice?

Those questions were in the air last month in Seattle at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The association is devoted to promoting liberal education — which it defines as one that develops in students “a strong sense of value, ethics, and civil engagement” — at all levels, from community colleges to research universities. Without discounting the importance of marketable skills, such an education should include the study of literary and historical texts, philosophical questions and scientific concepts, as well as engagement with foreign cultures.’

Read full article here.