Bad Scientists

As an occasional reader of Ben Goldacre’s columns and books, and a regular listener to Radio 4’s More or Less programme, I feel pretty well informed about the poor and inaccurate reporting of scientific research and its findings in the press and news media generally and apply a suitably sceptical eye to such. It must be said though that the scientists don’t help themselves when writing attention grabbing summaries of their findings, knowing that these are the only bits that most will read and report on. We therefore have constant streams of advice that Red Wine, Red Meat, Coffee, Chocolate etc. are alternately good for us, bad for us, beneficial in small quantities, or the root of some current social evil.

This is exemplified by the battle for the last 30 or so years by some to get us to abandon many or most dairy products in favour of synthetic alternatives, or recently to abandon some of the alternatives (Those with hydrogenated fats), or to espouse those with plant extracts that reduce Cholesterol by some unspecified amount. This recent move towards the promotion of the functional benefits of highly processed synthetic foods, when combined with the absence of any significant campaign by health busybodies to have dairy products branded with a skull and crossbones like poison warning leads me to suspect the science supporting the one over the other is, shall we say, not settled.

Wouldn’t it have been easier in the first place to follow the advice of Dr. William Howard Hay which is broadly that milk (and therefore its more concentrated forms butter and cheese as well) is a food for young animals and that unless you want to grow and put on weight like a young animal it would be wise to moderate your intake?

But its not just in these areas of contention of opinion that science is poorly served, some times the scientists themselves take a rather aloof and superior position, whilst sneering at popular opinion and simultaneously offering no answers. Here are some examples.

The England Cricket Team and its bowlers

There is a phenomenon which occurs around the world, and among all teams, but seems most acute and obvious when England’s bowlers are playing in England. At some point around mid-afternoon, when things cool a bit in the summer and maybe a bit of cloud comes over, England’s bowlers are able to produce “reverse swing” getting the ball to move in the air in a way that gives the opponents batsmen a hard time. This is a technique that the bowlers practice a lot, but is only effective when conditions are right. Commentators and listeners alike are able to predict with some accuracy when that will be, but whenever scientist are consulted on the matter they just say “It’s not humidity, we’ve measured that”, or “It’s not temperature, we’ve measured that” with the clear implication that there are no causal factors in the environment. But it happens, regularly, and quite predictably. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as they say.

Too cold for snow

About this time of year we usually have the odd spot of cold weather, sometimes very cold. There is a generally held view in Britain that there are circumstances when it’s so cold that we won’t have snow. I have found this wherever I have lived in Britain, and agree with it. We generally have on TV or radio a report of a forthcoming cold snap, followed by someone making this assertion, followed by some patronising meteorologist pointing out that it regularly snows in many polar and near polar regions where it is much colder than in Britain and that this is therefore an Old Wives Tale. Whilst not actually having an old wife (But hoping to, should we both live long enough) I am generally in favour of them and their tales. Could it not be, I ask myself, that the climatic conditions that bring very cold weather to much of Britain are not the same ones that bring wet water laden clouds, so that for most of us, most of the time, when it is very cold it doesn’t snow?

The Adverts on TV are too loud

This is, I think, the crowning achievement of patronising scientists being wrong. It is surely everybody’s experience that the adverts on TV are louder than the surrounding programming. We must all have had the experience of being uncomfortably jolted from a gentle snooze during say Midsomer Murders (It doesn’t matter really, nothing happened while you were away) by a series of companies listing the shortcomings in our lifestyle, appearance or health which can be overcome by the purchase of some good or service which they happen to be able to provide. This phenomenon is occasionally discussed on TV with “An acoustics expert” who will put on that wry patronising smirk and say it isn’t happening really. He will then explain that they know about loudness in ways that we ordinary people don’t. They have a measure, the decibel, of sound pressure. They have a weighted variant of this, dB(A) which is corrected for the performance of the human ear. They have instruments which measure dB(A) and they show that the sound is not getting louder. What is happening, they say, is that the sound for adverts is “compressed”, an audio processing technique that raises all the frequency bands in a signal to their highest level so that whilst not actually being louder, it sounds it.

Well excuse me for trying to wrest  the word “loud” back from your modern scientific meaning to the one we’ve all used in ignorance for hundreds of years but if something sounds louder then it is, by any rational definition, louder.

In praise of the artisan

As Tom Stoppard says in Artist Descending a Staircase, “Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.” 

With the death of David Bowie we are all reminded of the impact that truly innovative and creative people can have on our lives. It all seems too much for one person’s lifetime to achieve and leave for us to gather and absorb.

People like Bowie are, of course, inspirational not just for what they produce, but also in the way they live their lives, causing others to view their opinions and options in a new way, but it is in what they produce that I think their long term impact will be felt most strongly over time via the development of the current creative arts beyond performance and expression towards pure and constant innovation.

This has lead to a book market flooded with the output of creative writing graduates which is often distinctive and original only in the rather formulaic ways in which it avoids being  conventional.

Modern British TV has become so obsessed with innovation that I’m often left with the impression that the last thing producers consider is the audience. Their writers, directors, cameramen, lighting crews et al. are all so infused the the zeitgeist of innovation that none appear to want to work on shows that aren’t constantly being changed about. You could even get the impression sometimes that they all find it a bit boring and make changes just to stay awake.

A considerable proportion of TV and radio output is quite unnecessarily live, and subject to communications failures and time-filling wittering, because since CNN broke into the market with lightweight crews who were reporting on the spot ages before everyone else, that has become the way to report news. I can’t think of a single news item, short of a nuclear assault on the UK, that I need to hear about from a live reporter in a shouty gushing and incomplete manner, rather than a recorded considered piece from a local correspondent who has gathered the facts and context.

All the recent historical TV documentaries I have seen have been in the present tense, as if history needs to be presented with urgency to be engaging.

Modern travelogues tend to be little more that celebrity holiday videos with very little insight, but lots of personal anecdote. Can nobody in the TV companies see the folly of these programmes which always seem to begin with a millionaire celebrity telling us they’ve always wanted to travel to Reykjavik or the Great Barrier Reef or some other place that plenty of ordinary people seem to manage to visit by using travel agents and their own money?

What I think we want from the Arts is the same as what we want from manufacturers, 10% periodic innovation but 90% proper attention to the craft. This was Apple’s edge over Microsoft, a limited range of hardly innovative but thoughtfully designed and beautifully made products that worked well together and didn’t need constant overhaul or update. Dyson’s success only really came after the innovative engineering and design was followed up by better manufacturing so that there were fewer fiddly bits which broke off (Of course the real Dyson innovation was to produce a vacuum cleaner that blokes would use).

There is an oft repeated study showing that the only people who, on average, made money during the Gold Rush were pick and shovel manufacturers, a truth espoused by the German economy which has a backbone of machine toolmakers supplying production lines all over the world. They may not be household names, but they provide high quality reliable goods, and high paid reliable jobs over the long term.