Saturday, 27 September 2008

Oh, the humanities!

Ben Goldacre doesn't think much to humanities graduates which is why, for a fan like me, reading his column often feels like being kicked in the teeth by a favourite uncle. To alleviate the intense emotional damage caused by his blanket dismissal of my kind, I've been considering the wider implications of his - and other science bloggers' - pet hate.
There may be a deeply buried psychological trauma to blame; was he rejected by the school history club as a kid, or repeatedly stood-up by Shakespeare-loving French exchange students? Either way, his stated reason is that some humanities graduates work as journalists, that some of those write stories involving science, and that many of these stories contain errors or misrepresent the facts. As generalisations go, this is more than a bit crude. What he's describing is a group of media professionals entrusted with the dissemination of information to the general public, who couldn't give a monkey's about accuracy, scientific or otherwise. To label these people "humanities graduates" is a moronic and offensive kind of joke, on a level with saying "Irishman" when you mean "idiot", and it sounds more idiotic and childish the more you say it.
The humanities are not by definition unscientific. What we may be dealing with here is confusion of the words science and scientist, both referring to "The Sciences", and the word scientific, meaning "the scientific method". The way I understand it - and I welcome correction - a person striving to achieve scientific accuracy should collect as much data as possible, include all information in their analysis regardless of whether or not it supports their ideas, consider and seek to eliminate all possible causes of error in their method or argument, and then present the information for peer review in such a way that someone could do exactly the same as you: look at the same source data (whether it's results from a trial or secondary literature) and apply exactly the same approach from start to finish. Different academic disciplines may use different forms of data but the attention to accuracy, the disclosure of source material and method, and the willing exposure to ruthless criticism should be the same in all 'good' researchers (and that applies to everyone, from schoolchildren to life-long enthusiasts carrying out investigations in garden sheds).
There are 'bad humanities' examples aplenty, just as there is 'bad science'. Those who seek to discredit all scientists by using a few examples (like banging on about doctors carrying out experiments in Nazi concentration camps) are considered twunts by science bloggers. Quite right too, but a little less hypocrisy would be nice.
Am I getting too worked up over a harmless in-joke? Well no, actually, because there are serious issues at stake. Goldacre's column in the Guardian has changed a lot over the years I've been reading it. It used to be a collection of short "look at these idiots" anecdotes, misleading labels and stupid statements by media 'experts'. It's now a very serious criticism of the way pseudoscience is becoming increasingly indistinguishable - for the lay person - from the real thing, through a combination of manipulative charlatans and lazy, sensation-seeking reporting. It's now less of a science blog and more of political / media studies / cultural / history of ideas blog. Solving the very serious problems that this decline of science (or whatever we should call it) is causing, for example the fact that so many HIV sufferers in Africa are choosing herbal remedies over anti-retroviral drugs, will take more than just scientists. We need people who have spent years studying the history and culture of the communities to explain exactly why they are so ready to believe that western drugs companies want to kill them. We need linguists, diplomats, social policy experts and other humanities graduates to combat the sophisticated anti-drugs propaganda.
We need people from all backgrounds to read Goldacre's column and the badscience blogs and to become just as outraged by the issues they investigate. We need humanities graduates to pitch in to solve those social problems made worse by bad science. Repeatedly wiping you knob on their collective reputation isn't the best start.


Here's an example of the humanities graduate comments in Goldacre's blog. I admit it's only a few words but I've never seen him qualify it properly: Make your own ID. It's also a really good article, of course.

Here's a good explanation of the difference between scientists and people who just try to sound like them: The Epiphenomena of Quackery

And here's a recent example of rubbish reporting of a non-story where all journalistic skills seem to have been disregarded: Nine in 10 women 'cheat' to look good . You don't have to be any kind of graduate to know that this bit makes no sense:
The poll also revealed the perils of attempting to look beautiful.
Top of the list was the visible panty line, followed by smudged mascara and unshaven legs.
Yes, my legs are hairy due to vain attempts to increase my feminine wiles through 'cheating'. Pillocks.

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