If you only read one book about science in your life, then make it this one by Bad Science’s Ben Goldacre. For those who don’t know, Ben is a medical doctor who has been writing in the Guardian for years about the use and misuse of (mostly) health information in the media.
This is serious stuff, and his book covers much of the same territory as the blog and column; a relentless focus on the truth, with much more humour and lightness of touch than that description implies. It’s essential reading for anyone who ever glances at the stories in the paper that talk about which diets to choose, whether vitamin pills have any effect or which new treatments are available for cancer. Not because this book contains the answers, but rather because it will teach you how to find the answers by thinking statistically.
As a result, it should be essential reading for anyone who exists in the modern world, where the single most important thing you could do is develop a healthy respect for the sheer weirdness and counterintuitive nature of the probabilities that affect our judgement of risk. (Simple example: Goldacre points out we find it much easier to judge the significance of a result which says ‘Six instead of three people out of 1000 got cancer when they didn’t exercise than we do a headline that says ‘Chance of getting cancer doubled for the lazy’).
Mostly, then, the point of this post is to tell you to read the book. But as it climbed through the sins and stupidities of the alternative medicine industry, nutritionists, the pharmaceutical industry and the media (no-one gets off very lightly) I couldn’t help wondering where it was going. Goldacre has useful insights, among them the realisation that any science story that becomes big news is almost invariably removed from those most qualified to write about it, but while reading I couldn’t help feeling that having diagnosed our problem Goldacre was about to offer a grand solution.
He doesn’t. Worse that that, what he does say is defeatist and wrong-headed. He argues that science reporting should be reserved for the features section of the paper, where it could be given space to breathe. I get the sense he’d agree that this would reduce the audience for it to those who are already interested, but I’m not ready to give up on everyone else just yet. His clarion call, when it comes, is for scientists to blog more, and find their own audience that way.
It is true that blogs can provide in-depth, detailed coverage of a level that it’s impossible to imagine appearing in the paper. From my field, take Emily’s work at the Planetary Society as your canonical example. The problem is that by communicating only through the medium of the blog, rather than via the book or the column (both of which Goldacre has done brilliantly) or the news we speak almost exclusively to the converted. We do need to be louder and more strident about the need for scientific literacy (or rather, the statistical literacy that it requires), but to stop trying to communicate to a mass audience? That’s just giving up.