I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that (2014) by Ben Goldacre

A hundred clear, witty, and literate attacks on the agreeable nonempiricism that most worldviews and most conversations are based in, even in the modernised, developed world. (It covers such anti-scientific fields as alternative medicine, journalism, politics, and policy. You may regard anti-vaxxers, face cream 'science', homeopathy, and AIDS denialism as too obviously false to be worth your time deriding. But these hopeful, manipulative falsehoods are where many if not most live: someone has to defend people.)

This makes it a collection of a hundred enjoyable tutorials in statistics, experimental method, and epistemology:

Alternative therapists don't kill many people, but they do make a great teaching tool for the basics of evidence-based medicine, because their efforts to distort science are so extreme. When they pervert the activities of people who should know better – medicines regulators, or universities – it throws sharp relief onto the role of science and evidence in culture...

Goldacre is a gifted populariser: by focussing on particular abuses, he is able to animate very hard and theoretical topics by leveraging our anger, or our humour. (In a similar way to Nassim Taleb's snark. Of course, as strict empiricists, the two men share many targets: the powerful and overconfident, the famed and hollow, the predatory and avaricious). Since British libel law opens him to constant financial hazard, even when he is entirely careful and correct, he calls his writing "pop science with a gun to your head". (Actually it is mostly pop metascience; even better. There are shout-outs to the great critics of C20th science: Celia Mulrow, John Ioannidis, Uri Simonsohn, who are too-rarely praised; for they turned on the people who might otherwise have lionised them.)

He shows policy analysis to be lagging a century behind the standard set by medical trials, and not mostly for the good reasons (which are: that they have a more causally dense subject than medicine has; and because they face absolute ethical restrictions on their experiments: it is politically impossible to experiment with welfare systems). e.g.: Policy people set no required evidence threshold before administering their treatments en masse, have no controls, no randomisation, no calibration, no statements of formal uncertainty, no malpractice system to punish their recklessness, nor often any honest fucking posthoc evaluation of their treatment.

[Andrew Lansley's] pretence at data-driven neutrality is not just irritating, it's also hard to admire. There's no need to hide behind a cloak of scientific authority, murmuring the word "evidence" into microphones. If your reforms are a matter of ideology, legacy, whim and faith, then, like many of your predecessors, you could simply say so, and leave "evidence" to people who mean it.

Journalists come across as badly as the quacks - even BBC, Panorama, C4 News. This may be being ameliorated at last by the rise of the specialised blogospheres and by the Nate Silver / Rich Harris / Keith Frey school of data journalism. But not generally yet and not for sure.

I love his rationalist war-cry, against the public and dinner-party proponents of the never-supported MMR -autism link:

Many of these people were hardline extremists - humanities graduates - who treated my arguments about evidence as if I were some kind of religious zealot, a purveyor of scientism, a fool to be pitied. The time had clearly come to mount a massive counter-attack.

...nerds are more powerful than we know. Changing mainstream media will be hard, but you can help create parallel options. More academics should blog, post videos, post audio, post lectures, offer articles and more. You'll enjoy it: I've had threats and blackmail, abuse, smears and formal complaints with forged documentation. But it's worth it, for one simple reason: pulling bad science apart is the best teaching gimmick I know for explaining how good science works. I'm not a policeman, and I've never set out to produce a long list of what's right and what's wrong. For me, things have to be interestingly wrong, and the methods are all that matter.

His website is a bit ugly but has most of this content for free; the extras in this volume are oddities for fans (an undergraduate paper of his, BMJ editorials and notes from his heartening rise into British policy establishment (he is a public health researcher at the NHS). This was my second pass at his columns; I was again refreshed and uplifted and enraged. We might despair at how persistent insensitivity to evidence has been, and at how unnatural empiricism remains, in a society totally transformed by it. But I don't despair, because it has never been easier for us to check and rebut liars and fools. I sincerely aspire to become a "research parasite" (an independent checker of analyses, a rogue forensic statistician) and to write as clearly and well as him.

Goldacre is that rare thing, someone doing the best work they possibly could be. (If he could be persuaded to migrate to the global south...)


No comments:

Post a Comment