In the course of thinking about metrics, I keep coming across cases of over-promoted research. An early case was “Why honey isn’t a wonder cough cure: more academic spin“. More recently, I noticed these examples.
“Effect of Vitamin E and Memantine on Functional Decline in Alzheimer Disease".(Spoiler -very little), published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. ”
and ” Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet” , in the New England Journal of Medicine (which had second highest altmetric score in 2013)
and "Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain", published in Science
In all these cases, misleading press releases were issued by the journals themselves and by the universities. These were copied out by hard-pressed journalists and made headlines that were certainly not merited by the work. In the last three cases, hyped up tweets came from the journals. The responsibility for this hype must eventually rest with the authors. The last two papers came second and fourth in the list of highest altmetric scores for 2013
Here are to two more very recent examples. It seems that every time I check a highly tweeted paper, it turns out that it is very second rate. Both papers involve fMRI imaging, and since the infamous dead salmon paper, I’ve been a bit sceptical about them. But that is irrelevant to what follows.
Boost your memory with electricity
That was a popular headline at the end of August. It referred to a paper in Science magazine:
“Targeted enhancement of cortical-hippocampal brain networks and associative memory” (Wang, JX et al, Science, 29 August, 2014)
This study was promoted by the Northwestern University "Electric current to brain boosts memory". And Science tweeted along the same lines.
Science‘s link did not lead to the paper, but rather to a puff piece, "Rebooting memory with magnets". Again all the emphasis was on memory, with the usual entirely speculative stuff about helping Alzheimer’s disease. But the paper itself was behind Science‘s paywall. You couldn’t read it unless your employer subscribed to Science.
All the publicity led to much retweeting and a big altmetrics score. Given that the paper was not open access, it’s likely that most of the retweeters had not actually read the paper.
When you read the paper, you found that is mostly not about memory at all. It was mostly about fMRI. In fact the only reference to memory was in a subsection of Figure 4. This is the evidence.
That looks desperately unconvincing to me. The test of significance gives P = 0.043. In an underpowered study like this, the chance of this being a false discovery is probably at least 50%. A result like this means, at most, "worth another look". It does not begin to justify all the hype that surrounded the paper. The journal, the university’s PR department, and ultimately the authors, must bear the responsibility for the unjustified claims.
Science does not allow online comments following the paper, but there are now plenty of sites that do. NHS Choices did a fairly good job of putting the paper into perspective, though they failed to notice the statistical weakness. A commenter on PubPeer noted that Science had recently announced that it would tighten statistical standards. In this case, they failed. The age of post-publication peer review is already reaching maturity
Boost your memory with cocoa
"Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults. Brickman et al., Nat Neurosci. 2014. doi: 10.1038/nn.3850.".
The journal helpfully lists no fewer that 89 news items related to this study. Mostly they were something like “Drinking cocoa could improve your memory” (Kat Lay, in The Times). Only a handful of the 89 reports spotted the many problems.
A puff piece from Columbia University’s PR department quoted the senior author, Dr Small, making the dramatic claim that
“If a participant had the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning of the study, after three months that person on average had the memory of a typical 30- or 40-year-old.”
Like anything to do with diet, the paper immediately got circulated on Twitter. No doubt most of the people who retweeted the message had not read the (paywalled) paper. The links almost all led to inaccurate press accounts, not to the paper itself.
But some people actually read the paywalled paper and post-publication review soon kicked in. Pubmed Commons is a good site for that, because Pubmed is where a lot of people go for references. Hilda Bastian kicked off the comments there (her comment was picked out by Retraction Watch). Her conclusion was this.
"It’s good to see claims about dietary supplements tested. However, the results here rely on a chain of yet-to-be-validated assumptions that are still weakly supported at each point. In my opinion, the immodest title of this paper is not supported by its contents."
NHS Choices spotted most of the problems too, in "A mug of cocoa is not a cure for memory problems". And so did Ian Musgrave of the University of Adelaide who wrote "Most Disappointing Headline Ever (No, Chocolate Will Not Improve Your Memory)",
Here are some of the many problems.
- The paper was not about cocoa. Drinks containing 900 mg cocoa flavanols (as much as in about 25 chocolate bars) and 138 mg of (−)-epicatechin were compared with much lower amounts of these compounds
- The abstract, all that most people could read, said that subjects were given "high or low cocoa–containing diet for 3 months". Bit it wasn’t a test of cocoa: it was a test of a dietary "supplement".
- The sample was small (37ppeople altogether, split between four groups), and therefore under-powered for detection of the small effect that was expected (and observed)
- The authors declared the result to be "significant" but you had to hunt through the paper to discover that this meant P = 0.04 (hint -it’s 6 lines above Table 1). That means that there is around a 50% chance that it’s a false discovery.
- The test was short -only three months
- The test didn’t measure memory anyway. It measured reaction speed, They did test memory retention too, and there was no detectable improvement. This was not mentioned in the abstract, Neither was the fact that exercise had no detectable effect.
- The study was funded by the Mars bar company. They, like many others, are clearly looking for a niche in the huge "supplement" market,
The claims by the senior author, in a Columbia promotional video that the drink produced "an improvement in memory" and "an improvement in memory performance by two or three decades" seem to have a very thin basis indeed. As has the statement that "we don’t need a pharmaceutical agent" to ameliorate a natural process (aging). High doses of supplements are pharmaceutical agents.
To be fair, the senior author did say, in the Columbia press release, that "the findings need to be replicated in a larger study—which he and his team plan to do". But there is no hint of this in the paper itself, or in the title of the press release "Dietary Flavanols Reverse Age-Related Memory Decline". The time for all the publicity is surely after a well-powered study, not before it.
The high altmetrics score for this paper is yet another blow to the reputation of altmetrics.
One may well ask why Nature Neuroscience and the Columbia press office allowed such extravagant claims to be made on such a flimsy basis.
What’s going wrong?
These two papers have much in common. Elaborate imaging studies are accompanied by poor functional tests. All the hype focusses on the latter. These led me to the speculation ( In Pubmed Commons) that what actually happens is as follows.
- Authors do big imaging (fMRI) study.
- Glamour journal says coloured blobs are no longer enough and refuses to publish without functional information.
- Authors tag on a small human study.
- Paper gets published.
- Hyped up press releases issued that refer mostly to the add on.
- Journal and authors are happy.
- But science is not advanced.
It’s no wonder that Dorothy Bishop wrote "High-impact journals: where newsworthiness trumps methodology".
It’s time we forgot glamour journals. Publish open access on the web with open comments. Post-publication peer review is working
But boycott commercial publishers who charge large amounts for open access. It shouldn’t cost more than about £200, and more and more are essentially free (my latest will appear shortly in Royal Society Open Science).
Hilda Bastian has an excellent post about the dangers of reading only the abstract "Science in the Abstract: Don’t Judge a Study by its Cover"
4 November 2014
I was upbraided on Twitter by Euan Adie, founder of Almetric.com, because I didn’t click through the altmetric symbol to look at the citations "shouldn’t have to tell you to look at the underlying data David" and "you could have saved a lot of Google time". But when I did do that, all I found was a list of media reports and blogs -pretty much the same as Nature Neuroscience provides itself.
More interesting, I found that my blog wasn’t listed and neither was PubMed Commons. When I asked why, I was told "needs to regularly cite primary research. PubMed, PMC or repository links”. But this paper is behind a paywall. So I provide (possibly illegally) a copy of it, so anyone can verify my comments. The result is that altmetric’s dumb algorithms ignore it. In order to get counted you have to provide links that lead nowhere.
So here’s a link to the abstract (only) in Pubmed for the Science paper http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25170153 and here’s the link for the Nature Neuroscience paper http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25344629
It seems that altmetrics doesn’t even do the job that it claims to do very efficiently.
It worked. By later in the day, this blog was listed in both Nature‘s metrics section and by altmetrics. com. But comments on Pubmed Commons were still missing, That’s bad because it’s an excellent place for post-publications peer review.
Here is a record of a couple of recent newspaper pieces. Who says the mainstream media don’t matter any longer? Blogs may be in the lead now when it comes to critical analysis. The best blogs have more expertise and more time to read the sources than journalists. But the mainstream media get the message to a different, and much larger, audience.
“Professor of pharmacology David Colquhoun is the take-no-prisoners debunker of pseudoscience on his unmissable blog”
It was pretty accurate apart from the fact that the picture was labelled as “DC in his office”. Actually it was taken (at the insistence of the photographer) in Lucia Sivilotti’s lab.
Photo by Karen Robinson.
The astonishing result of this was that on Sunday the blog got a record 24,305 hits. Normally it gets 1,000-1,400 hits a day . between posts, fewer on Sunday, and the previous record was around 7000/day
A week later it was still twice normal. It remains to be seen whether the eventual plateau stays up.
I also gained around 1000 extra followers on twitter, though some dropped away quite soon, and 100 or so people signed for email updates. The dead tree media aren’t yet dead. I’m happy to say.
3 June 2013
Perhaps as a result of the foregoing piece, I got asked to write a column for The Observer, at barely 48 hours notice. This is the best I could manage in the time. The web version has links.
This attracted the usual "it worked for me" anecdotes in the comments, but I spent an afternoon answering them. It seems important to have a dialogue, not just to lecture the public. In fact when I read a regular scientific paper, I now find myself looking for the comment section. That may say something about the future of scientific publishing.
It is for others to judge how succesfully I engage with the public, but I was quite surprised to discover that UCL’s public engagement unit, @UCL_in_public, has blocked me on twitter. Hey ho. They have 1574 follower and I have 7597. I wish them the best of luck.
I had never intended to write about climate. It is too far from the things I know about. But recent events have unleashed a Palin-esque torrent of comments from people who clearly know even less about it than I do. In any case, it provides a good context to think about trust in science,
My interest in it, apart from little matters like the future of the planet, lies in the reputation of science and scientists.
I have been going on for years now about the lack of trust in science, and the extent to which it is a self-inflicted problem. The latest reactions to the developments at the University of East Anglia and the IPCC may show the nature of the problem with dreadful clarity,
Many of us came into science because, apart from the sheer beauty of nature, it seemed like one of the few honest ways of earning a living. Most scientists that I know still think like that, but recent
events invite some reexamination of honesty in science.
How dishonest is science?
The first thing to say is that I have never come across anything in my own field that would qualify as fraud, or even dishonest. I did once have a visit from a rather distressed postdoc (not in my area of work) who felt pressurised by her boss into putting an interpretation on her work that she did not agree with. In the end, the bit of work in question was left out of the paper. That could be held to be dishonest, in that the omission wasn’t mentioned, but it could also be held that the omitted result was too ambiguous to contribute much to the paper. It was just short of the point where I’d have felt compelled to do something about it. But only just. That is about the worst thing I’ve encountered in a lifetime.
There is, of course, an enormous difference between being wrong and being dishonest. Any research that is worth doing has an outcome that can’t be predicted before the work is done. At best, one can hope for an approximation to the truth. Mistakes in observations, analysis or interpretation will sometimmes mean the announced result is completely wrong, with no trace of dishonesty being involved. But when that happens, others soon fiind the mistake. It is that self-correcting characteristic of science that keeps it honest in the long run.
Of course there have been occasional cases of outright fraud, simple
falsification or fabrication of data. How often it occurs is not really known. There is a recent analysis in PLoS One, about verified cases of misconduct in the USA suggested that 1 in 100,000 scientists per year are to blame, but other ways of counting give larger numbers. For example, if asked around 2 in 100 scientists claim to be aware of misconduct by someone else., The numbers aren’t huge but they are much bigger than they should be.
It isn’t perhaps surprising that the Fanelli study found misconduct was most frequent in “medical (including clinical and pharmacological) research studies”, which are often funded by the pharmaceutical industry, Basic biomedical research and other subjects were better, though sadly that could be only because they are less often offered money.
What gives rise to dishonesty?
It seems obvious that one motive is money, as suggested by the worst rates of misconduct being found in the clinical pharmacological studies, It is well known that studies funded by industry are more likely to produce results that favour the product than those funded in other ways.
The other reason is presumably the human desire to win fame, promotion and to get grants.
It is no excuse, but it is perhaps a reason for misconduct that the pressure to publish and produce results is now enormous in academia. Even in good universities people are judged by the numbers (rather than the quality) of papers they produce and by what journal they happen to be published in. Contrary to public perception, even quite senior people have no guarantee that they can’t be fired, and life for postdoctoral fellows, who do a large fraction of experimental research, is harsh to the point of cruelty. They exist on a series of short term contracts, they work exceedigly hard and have poor prospects of getting a secure job. In conditions like that, the only surprising thing is that there is so little dishonesty.
The pressure to publish in particular journals is particularly invidious because it is known that the number of citations that a paper gets (itself a fallible measure of quality) is independent of the journal in which it appears. Bibliometrists are the curse of our age. (See, for example Challenging the tyranny of impact factors, 2003; and How to get good science, 2007 or its web version; and Peter Lawrence’s article, The mismeasurement of science)
The enormous competitive pressure under which academics work is imposed by vice-chancellors, research councils and other senior people who should know better, It is a self-inflicted wound.
In other words, the authorities provide a strong incentive to do poor, over-hurried and occasionally dishonest science. Perhaps the surprising thing in the circumstances is that there is so little outright fabrication. The very measures that have the aim of improving science actually have just the opposite effect. That is what happens when science is run by people who don’t do it.
For an idea of what life is like in science now, try Peter Lawrence’s Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research. Or, for someone at the other end of their career, Jennifer Rohn’s account on Nature blogs.
Given the high degree of insecurity for young researchers, compounded by well-intentioned but vacuous “training” from daft Robert’s’ "training courses", or the dismaly ineffective Concordat, the only surprise is that so many people remain honest and devoted to good science. Nothing raises the ire of hard-pressed scientists more than the constant emails form HR trying to force people to go to gobbledygook courses on "wellbeing". Times Higher Education recently did a piece on "Get happy", The comments are worth reading.
So what about climate change?
Out of thousands of pages in the IPCC reports, a single mistake was found, On page 493 of the IPCC’s second 1000-page Working Group report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” (WGII) it was said that Himalayan glaciers were “very likely” to disappear by 2035. Glaciers are melting but that date can’t be justified. This single mistake has been blown out of all proportion. Furthermore it is important to notice that the mistake was found by scientists, not by ‘sceptics’. It is a good example of the self-correcting nature of science. Nevertheless this single mistake has provoked something close to hysteria among those who want to deny that something needs to be done.
On the other hand, the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia (UEA) look bad. It simply isn’t possible at the moment to say whether they are as bad as they seem at first sight, We just don’t know whether anything of importance was concealed, but we should know.
One thing can be said with certainty, and that is that the reaction to their revelation by Dr Phil Jones, and by the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, was nothing short of disastrous. Fred Pearce put it very well in Climate emails cannot destroy proof that humans are warming the planet
Most unforgivably of all, UEA refused to comply with requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and there is some reason to think that relevant material was deleted. The deputy information commissioner, Graham Smith, said: in a statement that
“The emails which are now public reveal that Mr Holland’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act were not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation. Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information.”.
That seems to me to be a matter that requires the resignation of the vice-chancellor. On this matter, I think George Monbiot is spot on in his article “Climate change email scandal shames the university and requires resignations“.
There was a big feature about academic freedom in Times Higher Education recently. One of the problems was what happens to someone who brings their own university into disrepute. But when that term is used, it is always used about junior partners in the organisation (you know, professors and the like). It should apply equally to heads of communications and vice-chancellors who bring their own university into disrepute, whether the disrepute is brought about by failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, or by promoting courses in junk medicine.
In general, conspiracy theories are wrong. I’m not sure how much of the distortion of climate data results from surreptitious funding of opposition to doing anything by the fossil fuel industry. The Royal Society is an organisation that is not usually prone to conspiritorialist views. That means one must take it seriously the fact that in 2006, the Royal Society wrote to ExxonnMobil to ask them to stop funding climate denialist organisations. This is a bit like the way Big Pharma has been caught funding “user groups” that endorse their products. Some newspapers like to stir up controversies about things that aren’t very controversial. For example there is a good analysis of a recent Sunday Times piece here.
Of course it is often alleged that "quackbusters" are funded by Big Pharma, though in fact the amounts of money involved are far too small for Big Pharma to bother. Climate deniers too like to suggest that there is some sort of conspiracy, arranged between hundreds of labs in the world to conceal the fact that there is no such thing as warming. I guess that shows only that deniers know little about how science works. it is an exceedingly competitive business, and getting hundreds of labs to say the same thing would be like trying to herd cats.
If there is a problem, it is the other way round. Labs are in such intense competition with each other, that it lcan lead to undesirable levels of secrecy.
Blogs in which researches have a direct dialogue with the public are a big help. As always in the blogosphere, the problem is to find the reliable sources. Two excellent sites, in which scientists (not journalists or lobbyists) talk directly with the public are realclimate.org and Andrew Russell’s blog. The post on RealClimate, IPCC errors: facts and spin, is especially worth reading.
Total openness is the only cure
All the raw data and all emails have to be disclosed openly. Everything should be put on the web as soon as possible. By appearing to go to ground, UEA has made enormous problems for itself and for the rest of the world. Some people object to total openness on the grounds that the other side tells lies. In the case of climate change (and in the case of junk medicine too) that is undoubtedly true. The opponents are ruthlessly dishonest about facts. The only way to counter that is by being ruthlessly and visibly honest about what you know, and why.
The UK’s Meteorological Office has, to its great credit, put raw data on line. That policy has already paid off, because a science blogger found a mistake in the way that some Australian data had been incorporated into forecasts. The Met Office thanked him and corrected the mistake. In fact the error makes no substantial difference to the warming trend, but the principle is just great. The more people who can check analyses and eliminate slip-ups the better.
Putting raw data on the web is an idea that has been gathering force for a while, in all areas of work, not just climate change. In my own are (stochastic properties of single ion channel molecules) our analysis programs have always been available on the web, free to anyone who wants them, despite the large amount of work that has gone into them. And we run a course. almost free, on the theory that underlies our analyses. Within the last couple of months we have been discussion ways of making public all our raw data (in any case, we would always have sent it to anyone who asked). Digitised single channel records are big files (around 100 Mb) and it is only recently that the web has been able to deal with such large amounts of raw data. There are also problems of how to format data so other people can read it, The way we are all heading is clear, and the fact that some people in climate science appeared to be hiding raw data is a disgrace.
Public relations is not the cure
It is not uncommon to read that science needs better PR. That is precisely what is not needed. PR exists to put only one side of the story. That makes it an essentially dishonest occupation. Its aims are the very opposite of those of science. The public aren’t stupid: often they recognise when they are getting half the story.
It is particularly unfortunate that many universities have developed departments with names like "corporate communications". Externally they are seen as giving information about science, and indeed some of the things they do are successful public engagement in science. Only too often, though, it is made clear internally that an important aim of these departments is to improve the image of the university.
But you have to choose. You can engage the public in science or you can be a PR image-builder. You can’t be both.
The matter came to a head in 2008 when, according to a report in Times Higher Education, the University of Nottingham issued a memo that defined public engagement as: “The range of activities of which the primary functions are to raise awareness of the university’s capabilities, expertise and profile to those not already engaged with the institution”.
The mainstream media and political blogs
The biggest problem of all with climate change is that it has become more about politics than about facts. It has become an essential credential for any conservative to deny that climate is changing. It is part of their public image, and most conservatives neither know nor care about evidence. Like Sarah Palin, they just know. In the USA especially, the argument is not really about climate at all. It is really about discrediting Barack Obama -a sort of swift-boat treatment that uses whatever lies are needed.
Just as with the great MMR fiasco and the promotion of its false link to autism, reports in newspapers and blogs must bear much of the blame for failing to inform readers of the actual underlying facts and, just as important, the uncertainties. Of course some papers have done a pretty good job, particularly the Guardian and the Independent in the UK, and the New York Times.. The political blogs, by and large, haven’t. The Huffington Post has made little effort (and publishes some appalling nonsense about medicine too).
The problem with political blogs and tabloid newspapers is that they are much more interested in sensation and circulation than they are in giving accurate news and information. Take, for example, the Guido Fawkes blog. To be fair, the blog itself says "The primary motivation for the creation of the blog was purely to make mischief at the expense of politicians and for the author’s own self-gratification. Its writer", so you know not to expect much, Paul Staines, was at the Westminster Skeptics event, Does Political Blogging Make a Difference? He makes no pretence of taking the news seriously, which, I guess, is why I don’t read his blog. After the talks I asked why his blog did little about climate change. His answer was "where are your sandals?". On the way home I tweeted, from a very overcrowded train (most trains from Euston being cancelled that night),
"On way home from #sitp political blogging. Learned that Guido serious about nothing but Guido. Narcissist not journalist."
At least one other person there agreed (thanks, Dave Cole).
It was good to hear Sunny Hundall of Liberal Conspiracy (the only one I read), but I found myself agreeing mostly with the chair, Nick Cohen. It would be a tragedy if the great national and local papers were to vanish. Guido Fawkes and Huffington Post are not remotely like proper newspapers.
Specialist blogs like this one are fine if you are interested in the topics we write about, but we don’t begin to supplant proper newspapers. Bloggers can and do occasionally get good stories. Those that are written by scientists can analyse more critically than most journalists have either the knowledge or the time to do. Bur they don’t come close to supplanting the detailed reporting in good newspapers of local events, what happens in law courts or in parliament. That’s why it is vital to buy newspapers, not just read them free on the web.
James Hayton, who is in nanoscience has posted his thoughts obout trust in science on his blog. I discovered this via Twitter (@James_Hayton). He also posted a beautiful clip from the Ascent of Man, in which Jacob Bronowski speaks, from Auschwitz, of the consequences of irrational dogma. I’m old enough to remember Bronowski on a 1950s radio programme, the Brains Trust, though James Hayton clearly isn’t. Now I enjoy equally his daughter, Lisa Jardine‘s talks about science and history.
1 March 2010. Phil Jones, and the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, appeared before a parliamentary committee. I found their responses to questions very disappointing. The evidence submitted by the Institute of Physics was strongly worded, but spot on.
“The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions and freedom of information law. The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital.”
7 March 2010. Thanks to some kind remarks from Michael Kenward (see first comment). I sought wider coverage of this item in the mainstream media. Consequently, on Thursday 4 March, a much shortened version of this article appeared on the Guardian environment site. That piece has accumulated so far, 230 comments. The discussion of it has spread to the two blogs that I recommended, Andy Russell’s blog and RealClimate.org, though it has been diverted onto the side-issue of the letter from the Institute of Physics. The seemingly innocent idea that total openness would increase trust has, to my real astonishment, resulted in hysterical accusations that I’m a crypto-denialist. The constant politically-motivated attacks on climate science seem to have induced a paranoid siege mentality in some of them. There is a real danger that such people will harm their own cause, and that would be tragic.
Being interested in science communication, I was pleased when the BMJ asked me to review Unscientific America , by Chris Monney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.
The BMJ provides a link that allows you access to the whole review. They have made very few changes from the submitted version, which is reproduced below (with live links in the text. [Download pdf of print version]
I very soon discovered that the book had already caused ructions in the USA, as a result of its advocacy of appeasement of religious groups. In particular there was all out war with P.Z.Myers, whose very popular blog, Pharyngula. documented the battle in detail).
It is an American book through and through, and in the USA the biggest threat to reason comes from the far-right religious fundamentalists who preach young-earth creationism. It is said that 46% of US citizens believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. The same far-right religious groups also preach that carrying guns is good, that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, that climate change is a socialist conspiracy and that health care for everyone is a communist plot. And they never hesitate to lie in the promotion of their ‘religious’ views. The US situation is totally different from that in Europe, where religion is all but dead, and young earth creationism is the preserve of a few cranky used-car dealers (and possibly Tony Blair?)
Review of the Week
Trust me, I’m a scientist
David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology, University College London
Unscientific America sounds like a fascinating topic, not least because the book is a follow-up from Mooney’s The Republican War on Science. It is written entirely from a US perspective (the USA sequenced the genome and invented the internet, apparently unaided). It’s reported that 46 percent of Americans believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. That’s certainly cause for alarm and Mooney & Kirshenbaum are certainly alarmed. They think that the public needs to be educated in science. They identify the obvious problems, evolution, climate change and quackery and ask what can be done. The problem is that they propose no good solutions, and some bad ones. Their aims are worthy but sometimes the book reads like an over-long and somewhat condescending whine about why science and scientists are not sufficiently appreciated.
I simply don’t think that it’s true that the public are not interested in science, nor that they can’t understand it at a level that is sufficient to be useful. It’s true that they have been let down badly by some sections of the media. Think particularly of the “great MMR hoax”1. The disastrous fall in vaccination is more attributable to talk show presenters and air-headed celebrities than to lack of interest from the public. People are systematically deceived by anti-vaxers, climate change denialists, vitamin pill salesmen and a horde of crackpot alternative therapists.
There is one problem that Mooney & Kirshenbaum don’t talk about at all, yet it seems to me to be one of the biggest problems in science communication. It isn’t lack of interest by the public, nor even lack of understanding, but lack of trust. The tendency of real science to indulge in hyperbolic self-promotion is one reason for the lack of trust. Sometimes this descends into outright dishonesty2,3. That is a tendency that is promoted by government and funding agencies by their insistence on imposing silly performance measures. The public is quite sensible enough to take with a pinch of salt the almost daily announcements of “cancer cures” that emanate from university press offices.
On the face of it, one should be encouraged that ‘public engagement in science’ is the mode du jour. It isn’t quite that simple though. Only too often, universities regard public engagement as a branch of their own PR machine4. They even instruct you about what tone of voice to use when talking publicly.
One reason why scientists need to talk to people outside the lab is precisely to counteract this tide of nonsense from PR people, who are paid to deceive. The problem for academics is usually time. We already do three jobs, teaching, research and coping with HR bollocks. How can we find time for a fourth job? That’s not easy, especially for the best researchers (those that do research themselves, not just lead a team). Mooney & Kirshenbaum suggest that the solution is to create a “cadre of communication and outreach experts”. I don’t think this would work. They would, by and large, be outsiders, writing uncritical paeans, dictated by big name scientists. A new cadre of PR hangers-on does not sound like a great idea. A better, and very much cheaper, solution would be to provide a course in free blogging software and we’ll do it ourselves.
The two chapters that I looked forward to reading, on religion and on “The bloggers cannot save us”, proved deeply disappointing. The authors are firmly in the camp of what Richard Dawkins called the “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists&rdquo.; They maintain “if the goal is to create an America more friendly to science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive”. They are particularly critical of P.Z. Myers5, the University of Minnesota developmental biologist who is splendidly clear in his views. Of the communion wafer, he famously said “It’s a frackin’ cracker”. But he, and Dawkins, are right. When it comes to young earth creationists we have a war on our hands, and nowhere more than in the USA. What’s more it’s a winnable war. Mooney & Kirshenbaum are all for appeasement, but appeasement won’t work. It might please the more moderate wings of the church, but they already believe in evolution and are regarded by fundamentalists as being just as big an enemy as Myers and Dawkins. And, one must ask, who has done best at getting a wide public readership? P.Z Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, has up to two million page views a month. Dawkins’ book The God Delusion has sold three million copies. In comparison the bland and often rather condescending corporate science web sites get tiny numbers of hits.
In Europe in general, and the UK in particular, young earth creationists are not the major problem that they are in the USA, despite being supported by Tony Blair6. Perhaps the nearest analogy in Europe is the threat to reason from various sorts of crackpot medicine. The appeasers are widespread. The Royal Colleges and the Department of Health are at the forefront of the Neville Chamberlain approach. But appeasement hasn’t worked there either. What has worked is the revelation that university courses are teaching that “amethysts emit high yin energy”7. Or, in a lecture on herbal approaches for patients with cancer, “Legally, you cannot claim to cure cancer. This is not a problem because: ‘we treat people, not diseases’ “8. This is shocking stuff but it has not been unearthed by the corporate media, but by bloggers.
I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum have it all wrong. They favour corporate communications, which are written by people outside science and which easily become mere PR machines for individuals and institutions. Such blogs are rarely popular and at their worst they threaten the honesty of science. More and more individual scientists have found that they can write their own blog. It costs next to nothing and you can say what you think. A few clicks and the world can read what you have to say. Forget corporate communications. Just do it yourself. It’s fun. And think of the money you’d save for doing science if the PR people were just fired.
(1) Goldacre, B. The media’s MMR hoax. 2008 http://www.badscience.net/2008/08/the-medias-mmr-hoax/
(2) PLoS One. Ghostwriting documents now fully available on PLoS Medicine website. 21-8-2009 http://speakingofmedicine.plos.org/2009/08/21/ghostwriting-documents-now-fully-available-on-plos-medicine-website/
(3) Colquhoun, D. Universities Inc. in the UK. The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education: part 2. 6-12-2007 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=193
(4) Corbyn, Z. Nottingham raises eyebrows over definition of ‘public engagement’. 21-8-2008 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=403234
(5) Myers, P. Z. Pharyngula. 2009 http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/
(6) Pyke, N. Revealed: Blair’s link to schools that take the Creation literally (Independent 13 June 2004). 13-7-2004 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-blairs-link-to-schools-that-take-the-creation-literally-732032.html
(7) Colquhoun, D. Westminster University BSc: "amethysts emit high yin energy". 23-4-2008 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=227
(8) Colquhoun, D. Herbal approaches for patients with cancer. 10-8-2009 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2043
P.Z. Myers has posted about thie book review, on Pharyngula, as Is this book dead yet? There are a lot more comments there than here, though few of them address the question of science communications..
Butterflies and Wheels is generating a lot of hits