Archive for the ‘Bad science’ Category

The risk of accuracy

February 6, 2013
Percentage symbol

Watch those percentages… (image by NavBack)

I love reading about risk. As someone who finds maths a bit of a challenge, it always becomes more real to me when the numbers relate to the real world. Using numbers to explain the risk of something happening seems like an excellent way to harness the power of maths – numbers are objective, concrete, and not vague.

But as always in the messy real world, it’s not quite that simple. That’s why I was really inspired by this blog post from the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, explaining how extra levels of ‘accuracy’ – more numbers – can actually make risks harder to understand. (more…)


Do fish and crustaceans feel pain?

January 17, 2013

Don’t eat me! (photo by Rafael Ortega Diaz)

It would be amazing if we could put ourselves inside the minds of other animals – do they think, feel and reason like we do? Or are they little more than glorified robots? Or something in between? At the moment, we don’t know much. It’s impossible to experience the consciousness of another human, let along another species – and extremely hard to figure out what other species ‘feel’.

This problem was not conveyed very well by last week’s ‘news’ that ‘fish don’t feel pain’. This was actually based on a review article – not on new evidence – which only concluded that ‘fishes are unlikely to feel pain’. Not quite the same as saying they definitively don’t (something that would be impossible to prove, anyway). There’s an interesting analysis of the review on the Practical Fishkeeping website that disputes the review’s conclusion, with help from an expert in the field.

What really didn’t come across from the media coverage is how difficult it is to draw any conclusions at all about what fish actually feel. The arguments can go either way – if fish recoil from painful stimuli, does this mean they consciously feel pain, or that they are unconsciously and ‘instinctively’ removing themselves from danger?

Luckily, another news story this week – about pain in crustaceans – shows how a cleverly designed experiment can shed a bit more light on a tricky subject like this. The study showed that crabs can learn to avoid electric shocks, going to the extreme of leaving shelter and venturing out into the open – something they’re not normally keen to do. (more…)

Why do people believe crazy stuff?

October 13, 2012
Black cat

A black cat – lucky, unlucky, or just a cat?

We all like to think of ourselves as rational beings. Trouble is, this immediately sets up a paradox. If we are rational, we should be swayed by convincing evidence. And convincing evidence shows that human beings are very often not rational at all – we play the lottery, we are superstitious, and we ‘go with our gut’.

That’s why the beautiful concept of ‘rational thought’ will nearly always be a goal we can only strive to achieve. I have to remind myself of this every time I think ‘why would anyone sensible believe in homeopathy/conspiracy theories/creationism/hell/delete as appropriate’. It’s easy to tell yourself that these people must be stupid and irrational. But that’s not what the evidence really shows. (more…)

NHS productivity – room for statistical improvement

February 13, 2012
Placard reading 'what do we want? Evidence-based change. When do we want it? After peer review'

Evidence-based placard

The words ‘statistics’ and ‘measures’ often strike boredom into the hearts of even the nerdiest. Especially when we’re talking about ‘measuring impact’ or any similar corporate jargon phrase.

But this week’s news about the uncertainty behind reports of ‘falling NHS productivity’ just shows how crucial and controversial these measures can be. You might think that before you make a huge change to the health system, you would want to know how it’s performing. The Lancet has shone a spotlight on the fact that it’s very, very difficult to measure this, and it’s not actually clear whether NHS productivity is going up or down.

This isn’t a trivial thing. Measures might be a bit soul-destroying at times, but they are literally the raw material of science, so ‘evidence-based’ policymakers should always be looking very hard at the measures they’re using. (more…)

The horror of the ‘science’ quiz round

January 19, 2012

Current speed: zero mph

What’s the average speed of a cheetah? If you’re a bit of a nerd like me, you might be starting to work this out by estimating how much time cheetahs spend sleeping compared to running after antelopes, as this will clearly affect the average. But stop. You’re thinking far too hard. Quiz buffs will be pleased/incensed to hear that the ‘answer’ is supposed to be 72 miles an hour.

This was suggested as a good pub quiz question on a radio phone-in I heard this morning, and it reminded me just how annoying a ‘science’ quiz round can be. How can the average speed of a cheetah possibly be 72 miles an hour? Why not just change the question to ‘top speed’?? And yes, I know I’m a pedant, but when I get to the science round I expect to get interesting questions, not stupid ones.

The worst question I ever got in a real pub quiz was this brainteaser: how many spines does a hedgehog have? No clarification, no ‘within the nearest 100/1000’, no ‘average hedgehog’. Perhaps it was specially designed to irritate me – it succeeded. How is this ‘science’? What kind of hedgehog? Surely they don’t all have the same number of spines?? And worst of all, why didn’t I know the answer??? (more…)

Drug companies are bad – especially when it fits the news agenda

December 5, 2011
NHS logo

NHS - powering research

As the Leveson inquiry into media ethics rumbles on, I have struck my own blow against made-up rubbish. Yes, I just about managed to avoid reading my friend’s copy of Closer magazine at the weekend – it’s one small step for Nell. I reckon Hello might still be allowed because they actually seem to interview celebrities rather than just make up quotes.

But on a more serious note, it will be very interesting to hear evidence at the inquiry about how shoddy reporting affects science. There was a great example of a health story being twisted to fit a particular agenda this weekend in the Telegraph, with the ever so balanced headline ‘Animal test firms given your NHS data’. (more…)

Chuck Norris vs Science: science wins

November 10, 2011

Science is impervious to nunchuks

It’s a tragic day. I have lost respect for Chuck Norris. Despite the ‘fact’ that the Big Bang only happened because Chuck Norris kicked it in the face, it appears Chuck has challenged science to a second round. But since his only weapon is the assertion that vaccines cause autism, I’m thinking science will win.  (more…)

This post was inspired by the science of genes

September 14, 2011
DNA helix

Gene science: coming soon to a face cream near you

I really miss that L’Oreal slogan ‘here comes the science bit…’ – especially when they followed it up with ‘concentrate!’. My biochemist boyfriend was especially enraged by those shampoo adverts promising to ‘add key aminos’ to your hair. ‘IT ALREADY HAS ALL THE AMINOS IT NEEDS – IT’S MADE OF PROTEIN!!’ he would howl at the TV.

But these days they’re skipping the science bit altogether – sad times. So I’ve been left wondering what the advert for L’Oreal’s ‘Youth Code‘ skin cream is all about. The first time I saw it I waited eagerly to hear what craziness would come after the promising beginning saying that this new product is ‘inspired by the science of genes’. But I was disappointed. There was nothing else.


The Apprentice: blaahdy awful scientist stereotypes

June 17, 2011

Engineering - not necessarily a character flaw

The Apprentice really isn’t the place to go if you want to see evidence-based decision-making in action. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode where they actually listen to a focus group (apparently they’re too ‘focused’, according to Natasha). But then again these guys aren’t scientists – if anything they’re more like lab rats in some sort of twisted psychological experiment testing whether the fittest really do survive.

But there’s no need for the programme to take quite such a dim view of science. We’ve already had poor Edward endlessly apologising for being an accountant after being ditched in episode 1 – doing maths is nothing to be ashamed of! And this week we hit rock bottom – poor Glenn was actually fired just for being an engineer.


Cancer wasn’t cured last week

May 16, 2011

I work at Cancer Research UK, and today someone pointed me towards a very annoying tweet. Apparently ‘cancer was cured last week but no-one took any notice‘. This might seem pretty unlikely (unless you’re a conspiracy theorist). Whoever wrote the tweet did sound a little gullible, saying ‘everyone must retweet this!’ Unsurprisingly it turned out to be rubbish.

Not only was the basic story overhyped, but whoever started this rumour also got their dates mixed up. The story they were attempting to bring to the world’s attention was actually from May 2010 – not last week. Luckily the Cancer Research UK tweeters quickly figured this out and put the record straight. There’s more on the CR-UK blog.

I’m not sure why so many people are keen to believe that scientists and pharma companies are part of a huge conspiracy – it seems a little unfair to assume that they’re all twisted evil megalomaniacs who want people to die of cancer.

And if it’s so easy to attach sinister motives to scientists, why not make the same assumption about the writers of dodgy-sounding cancer ‘news’? Hmm, they could be out to make a quick buck too. Cancer is probably one of the topics with the worst lies-to-truth ratio on the internet, so it’s really worth taking any stories like this with a HUGE pinch of salt (and maybe not tweeting them to the world at large).