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Bad Science

Updated on March 10, 2011

Why Accurate Reporting of Science Matters

“Nothing is more irredeemably irrelevant than bad science”

- John C. Polanyi

Increasingly I despair at Hub Pages and other blogs which appear to be to a semi-educated person to be the personal ranting of individuals whilst attempting to address scientific topics. First of all let me say that I am not against hubs on science from the general public, in fact I am encouraged by them as it shows a level of engagement from people in scientific subjects which are often marginalised. Science is a broad and fantastic talking point with many topics and disciplines, it covers everything that we do in our lives and should of course be discussed and I’d love everybody to be as interested as I am.

However, I would urge people if they are to write on science to research what they are writing, not base their hubs on a hunch or predefined ideas gained from dubious sources. This does not mean, either that someone writing on a subject is not allowed to have their own thoughts or opinions away from the mainstream. Science if nothing else should teach us to assess with a critical eye, use healthy scepticism and voice opinions on topics, provided it is not just hollow noise!

I’ve tried to define the problem in five problems with much of what is written on Hub Pages and other blogs. Please add your thoughts and opinions too; I hope it to be the debate I encourage!

1. No research on a subject

Simply reading a tabloid newspaper article or the advertising blurb from a company selling a product is not sufficient evidence on which to base a hub stating the benefits of X or the dangers of Y. Rather than many authors spending time and care over putting together a piece backed by science, they instead hurriedly rush off a hub based on little more than hearsay.  Two of my (least) favourite examples which I’ve read over the last few days have included (I haven’t included the links to the hubs because there are many out there and I don’t wish to pick on one or two individuals):

An article on the perceived threat of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN creating a black hole into which the Earth may be sucked (there are many more than just this one).  The article spoke about the risk of black holes being created during the search for the Higgs Boson, a sub-atomic particle which is thought to be the reason for mass.  The article actually gave a figure of 1% as the calculated risk of the Earth being destroyed as a result of this study and said that “some physicists say” there’s actually a big chance of it happening.  Not once was a source quoted, nor were any give upon request. In fact the whole thing sounded suspiciously as though it had been written straight from a tabloid newspaper.  

The second I’ll share was an article on Amygdalin or vitamin B-17.  Not this could probably also fall under a couple of the other categories below as well as “lack of research”, but I include it because it should urge caution to those thinking of writing a hub on such a topic, and particularly to those thinking of listening to some of this advice!  The hub explored what a wonder cure this B-17 was; it cured and prevented cancer and a whole host of other maladies. Once again there was a complete lack of sources provided.  The thing that raised alarm bells in this instance was that B-17 has not only been proved not to help anybody with cancer (or in preventing it), but has also seen many negative studies done upon it.  This is due to its strong cyanogenic nature which has been responsible for hospitalising people and in some cases death when taken in large doses.  Not once was dosage mentioned within the article and the author even suggested that it may be bought more cheaply as “bird seed” (it is banned in most western countries as a diet supplement).  The hub verged on dangerous because of the authors utter belief in what he’d heard B-17 could help with, presumably from an extremely dubious source.

2. Undue scepticism or rejection of the scientific process or presented information

Science is by its very nature a process of scepticism, it is how the human race has progressed and finds itself in the high seat that it is now. However, what is not helpful is scepticism based on unfounded personal opinions. This is often what I find within so called science hubs.

The classic example of the rejection of data is the global warming issue. There are hundreds of hubs on climate change as a myth, but precious little which does anything other than attack the theory in general.  There is much information readily available which can be used to dispute either the overall picture or certain elements of manmade global warming or the policies in combating it – but none of these hubs even enter the debate!  Instead they just reject the concept out of hand, and to be perfectly honest, I have very little reason other than a gut instinct to reject things out of hand.

There is also the problem of some issues such as big bang theory, often covered on Hub Pages, is just utterly counterintuitive.  Perhaps it is this, as well as an outright rejection which causes people to deny scientific information or process. Either way, this is not what is meant as the critical analysis of science.

The burden of responsibility upon somebody wishing to dispute a point of view, information or process is completely with them.  Once a stance has been taken by a scientist or field of science based on accumulated information and testable ideas, then it is up to whoever challenges that stance to provide their information and reasoning as to why.  Science is not itself immune to this problem itself, many ideas initially sound so removed from the mainstream that they are rejected out of hand without fair review of the evidence. However, it must be said that areas such as physics have revised much of their field in the past 100 years alone, despite the human nature to throw ones cards in with the mainstream idea of the time.   

3. Entrenched personal or religious belief  

If you’ve read this hub to here, and you’ve read enough hubs purporting to be science on Hub Pages generally, then you’d have had a fair idea that this one was coming!

There must be a thousand hubs on creationism and intelligent design on this site within the science topics.  Let me just reiterate; there is no evidence, absolutely none, for either of these concepts from a scientific point of view.  There is however a vast amount of evidence for the alternative, evolution. And let’s be clear, anyone who actually thinks they should blog on creationism as a scientific subject is simply wilfully ignorant of the underlying science.

Personal beliefs too can be thrown in with those of a religious nature because they basically stem from an irrational belief of something (I don’t mean to insult anybody of a religious nature at this point, but from a scientific point of view this is a reasonable statement).  The topics can vary; evolution, big bang, herbal medicines, cosmology, astrology, but I suspect the root cause of the problem is the same.

Brian Cox explains the benefit of exploratory science

4. The lumping of science as a whole

Science is not one. It is varied and aims to address and investigate all of the phenomena that we are yet to understand about our world.  There seems to be an undercurrent in blogs and tabloid newspapers that scientists are crazy professors testing their own small theories, departed from any use in society and at huge public expense. This of course, is very rarely the truth.

A scientist studying the application of faster computer processors is not somehow in league with a stem cell researcher and vice versa.  Theoretical physicists do not test drugs on primates. Science is a tapestry of disciplines and lazy writing, referring to scientists and scientific issues as the same, pollutes sensible debate.

More below!      

5. The belief that science is somehow corrosive to our existence

Science is responsible for the world we live in today and despite many people’s belief, the world is a much nicer place now than it was in the past, from the perspective of a human being.  This is very nearly undeniable, using evidence. Anybody doubting this opening statement should visit and review the UN data themselves.  

Disease is down, deaths at birth are down, life expectancy is up, crime is down, health is better than it’s ever been, education is at its highest ever level and people are richer than ever before; to mention but a few indicators.  This is due to science.

There seems to be a view from many quarters of the net that science is somehow irredeemably corroding our society, that modernisation generally has caused the decay of humankind’s existence. Nothing could be further from the truth.  The odd war torn country excepted, everybody’s lifestyle improves in the world each year because of science. Just take a moment to reflect for a moment about the way things have improved in the past 20 years.  The internet has come into being in a big way, improving our the availability of information and services, average GDP for a global citizen had doubled, commutable diseases like Malaria and AIDS have been brought under control in many places (there is, obviously still a big problem with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa), you can contact people using mobile phones, the cost of most resources in real terms has fallen and world hunger reduced to relatively little by comparison to the past 200,000 years.

So what’s not to like? And more importantly, why don’t people like this and constantly knock it at every opportunity?  Well, there are examples like the big pharmaceutical companies which have caused suffering in trials and modern medicines which cause detrimental effects in some cases. People are deeply suspicious of such organisations, and for good reason. However, the alternative is far worse (i.e. taking none or herbal remedies which don’t work) and one shouldn’t tar the entirety of science, or even the pharma industry with one brush.

Cloning, GM and stem cells also have this effect on people. The idea that people are now messing with things that they “don’t understand” is not valid. The ethics and regulations on such science is extremely stringent and the reason that people are investigating such things is in order to make our lives better.

I think as much as anything, what upsets many is the way in which science reduces all of us to statistics. It uses no emotion or compassion (outside of ethics) when treating humans, animals or other things to get the heart-strings contracting.  This is again of great benefit in the long run though; it is far better that results are treated in a methodical way.

Statistician Hans Rosling uses brilliant stats to discuss the real state of the world

In summary, I hope this hub has worked to vent my spleen about the rough ride science is given by many on the internet and particularly Hub Pages. I understand of course, that Hub Pages is not a solely scientific forum and should not be treated as such. I have no problem with people writing what they would like, but I would urge them to do the reading and research before they set fingers to keys.

You may not like this hub for a number of reasons; this is also my point of view, I haven’t included references (I’ll send them on request) and I have been strident in my tone. You may point out that there have been many examples of science getting it wrong, and of course, yes, there have been. But it is far better to challenge ideas in a constructive way with evidence to the contrary, rather than much of what is written on these sites.

I hope to encourage the debate I discuss below!UHub


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    • Jefsaid profile image

      Jefsaid 7 years ago from London, UK

      Superwag, obviously I appreciate that you are simply making a point. Like anyone would naturally do, I would explore your experience and pose the usual scientific questions. However, if there was no logical explanation and I knew you to be of sound rational mind with integrity then certainly I would be prepared to believe you. If you happened to be lying then that would be your own failure, not mine.

      I absolutely do not believe in religious BS as you would realise through much of my writing. I do though believe in a spirituality and in life beyond this planet. The fact is I stand and observe both sides of the fence and scientific types are just as embedded in their beliefs as religious ones. Science serves its purpose in life and has been part of our evolution. However, it does not and cannot explain everything. It is those areas beyond scientific capability where scientists have a mental blockage and as a consequence dismiss them as improbability. It is a scientists belief that everything has to be explainable in weights, measures and experimental evidence.

      I believe there is a higher intellectual plain beyond the reach of conventional scientific 'under-standing' and integral to a level of 'knowing'. It is where we realise that our consciousness is a component part of a completely interconnected universal existence and its perceived separation from the things around us is the ultimate illusion that limits us from utilising the vast largely redundant part of our brain capacity.

      It is a space where Quantum Physics and the previously dismissed experiences described by Mystical minds have found common ground.

    • superwags profile image

      superwags 7 years ago from UK

      Hi Jeff,

      Science also describes perfectly why we're here. What is our creator? And why does it matter more than anything else?

      I hate to sound like one of those mean old non-religious types, but it seems to me that you've just commented on things from a purely religious view point?!

      I met a alien last week who challeged me to competition drinking shots of whiskey at the bar. I won of course. But then my camera and therefore all of the shots of the evening were lost. Damn.

      Do you believe me?

    • Jefsaid profile image

      Jefsaid 7 years ago from London, UK

      Wow! This is a strongly worded hub but you make your point well.

      The problem is that Science is simply the process of understanding our environment and its components but not its creator. There are a lot of scientists who only see things in mathematical formulae or just simply black and white. There are also too many who state things from the past or future in a factual manner based purely on theory. No one was their to see it.

      Religion and spirituality are completely the opposite where those who believe are not limited by formulation and statistics but by natural senses and belief in a greater force or a maker. I am totally non-religious but feel this is something beyond the limitations of scientific practicality. I agree that there are some highly indoctrinated religious beliefs being shoved in our faces and that some people are quoting scientific articles based on a hunch. However, this is not a one way road as scientists often explain away things in life based on a hunch because it is not proven through their scientific processes.

      The claimed expertise of e.g. spiritualists who have experienced certain phenomena are dismissed or discredited because they cannot reproduce their experiences in scientific terms. I believe that when spiritual intellect and science find their connection this type of debate will become irrelevant.

      I will get off my soap box now.

    • superwags profile image

      superwags 7 years ago from UK

      To quote the late, great Douglas Adams; "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

      I agree entirely that people are crossing boundaries within hub pages by posting personal beliefs within the science topic area. Unfortunately, I'm not sure these people see the distinction between religion and science which is deeplly concerning.

    • StarCreate profile image

      StarCreate 7 years ago from Spain

      I've only been around hubpages for a week or so, I've found it a very varied and interesting community - with an above-average proportion of evangelist-creationist nutjobs, OR more fairly I should say, a disproportionate amount of content and comment posted by said types. I think you are right SW that in the UK these people are, if not less prevalent, then perhaps less strident and in-your-face with their views, especially less likely to be trying to spread them in any kind of scientific setting.

      I am all for freedom of speech, but speech needs to be organised, and a category for scientific articles is no place for discussion of beliefs, which are by definition views held in the absence of any actual evidence. I am with Richard Dawkins on this one.... 'just because he's got an imaginary friend, why does that mean I have to listen to him?'

    • superwags profile image

      superwags 7 years ago from UK

      Hi Merlin, thanks for your comments; I find much of what's written on Hub Pages absolutely terrifying, verging on dangerous sometimes. How people in the USA can still be denying climate change is concerning enough (though I think there are questions to be asked regarding how we ow deal with the problem), but denying evolution is absolutely insane! I mean, Darwin published "on the origins" more than 150 years ago!

      Ingenira, don't believe everything you read online! People seem to be happy to publish content with no basis in fact whatsoever!

    • Ingenira profile image

      Ingenira 7 years ago

      I echoed what you said here. If I google for some solution to my computer problem, I often get a cut and paste answers which do not work.

    • Merlin Fraser profile image

      Merlin Fraser 7 years ago from Cotswold Hills

      Hi There, I see you've met my mate Baileybear, she and I share many thoughts and opinions on Darwin's 'Origin of Species' especially how Darwin would classify Creationists from the Bible Belt.

      I don't know if it is a blatant desire to constantly air their brand of intolerant ignorance to a wider audience or merely the fact that if they repeat the lies often enough someone, other than themselves, may belief them.

      If HubPages are anything to go by, there is something badly wrong with the US American education system when it comes to their ability to deny things such as Darwin and Global Climate change. Possibly it stems from the fact that Darwin wasn’t American, that and for them to acknowledge Climate change would mean they would dramatically have to change their very selfish and highly wasteful lifestyle. If ten scientific opinions agree and one TV personality disagrees guess who they go with ?

      Who knows, I tried once or twice to bring logic, reason and common sense to the HP Forum however I have found that if the subject is in anyway Religious or involves the words God or Bible then your sanity is pretty much at risk, I gave up weeks ago. Although there are still one or two who battle on on the side of sanity however they are singing to the deaf.

    • superwags profile image

      superwags 7 years ago from UK

      Because I'm from the UK, I rarely get to see the sharp end of this nutty devil dodging. However, I had an experience last year when I was giving an induction to new PhD students and to as a sort of aside, we walked around the newly refurbished museum. One of the guys (admittedly from Nigeria, where this stuff runs deep) refused to go any further at the dinosaur bit and said that "he didn't believe this".

      I guess the question would be then, "why do you think people are spending millions of pounds on creating this exhibition?! Do you think it's just to hoax you?! They've gone to a lot of effort to hoax the few people walking through those doors who believe in the bible that much that they think the world is 6000 years old, haven't they?!"

      I was perplexed, I tried to gently persuade the guy to just have a wander around (it was meant to be a bonding session with new colleagues) but he still refused. This from a guy who's doing a PhD in the UK; he's a scientist and yet doesn't critically analyse anything happening around him incase it infringes on his narrow world view. A clever bloke in every other regard.

      This is why god squadders scare me!

    • profile image

      Baileybear 7 years ago

      well, they throw away/attack anything that supports evolution eg radioactive dating, which is more physics & chemistry than biology.

      Funny thing is, the IDists (IDiots!) haven't come up with any valid science to offer as an alternative to evolution. Any attempts at 'science' to fit the bible are hilarious eg layers in geological column from 1 flood.

      I can't believe how cocky people are when they attack evolution eg James W - that's why I wrote a rebuttal hub. Anyone that didn't have the foggiest clue about science, but had religious inclinations just accepted what JW said as fact - it was so wrong, it was a joke

    • superwags profile image

      superwags 7 years ago from UK

      I think evolution is singled out from many other things that doesn't fit what "the good book" says. I'd say, if I was a goddy time of guy, that cosmology is more of a fundamental threat that evolution; it just shows how utterly insignificant we are in the universe. Things like thermodynamics also fundametally jar with the idea of a soul too, or an afterlife.

      I think evolution is a more basic and simple one to attack, but they could pick on any from a whole host of disciplines.

      I think that there is a misunderstanding that people somehow have equal weight of opinion when it comes to science, which of course, they don't. I'd never turn up to a conference of theoretical physicists and start boldly asserting random hypotheses. It doesn't seem to concern religious or ley people doing the same on aspects of science though! As I said in the hub, I'm geniunely encouraged though when people have an interest, but then dismayed to see that they're using it to prop up their own beliefs!

      Here's a couple of my favourite comedy sketches about the subject that do a way better job of dismantling pseudoscience than I can!

    • profile image

      Baileybear 7 years ago

      evolution (& associated geology etc) is the main threat - it doesn't fit well with the creation story etc

    • superwags profile image

      superwags 7 years ago from UK

      Yeah, I'm not sure I understand the percieved threat. I guess if you're trying to maintain a "space" for God, then science constantly tightening the gaps doesn't help your stand point much!

      Creationism is very troubling indeed, though I've no doubt it'll peter out in time. I've got to say though that it's not a problem in the UK per se (there's noone religious here!), I think it's more the noises we hear from across the pond which concern us.

    • profile image

      Baileybear 7 years ago

      I've noticed an attitude from many of the the US christian/mormon hubbers that science is untrustworthy or a threat in some way. As for the 'science' presented by creationists - I had to laugh


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