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.
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 www.gapminder.org 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
- Gapminder: Unveiling the beauty of statistics for a fact based world view. - Gapminder.org
Unveiling the beauty of statistics for a fact based world view. All of the UN's statistics data on the state of the world in cool interactive graphs.
- Bad Science
Ben Goldacre's site, mainly concerned with bad science in the medical sector. It attacks bad science from all sides; from herbalists to big pharma.
- Science Magazine
An online magazine reviewing the most recent science to be published
- Skeptic Home The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine
The Skeptics Society is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) educational organization that promotes science literacy and critical thinking. Supported by leading scientists, scholars, journalists and magicians, we investigate fringe science and paranormal claims.
- The Royal Society
The original organisation to challenge, test and discuss scientific principles. The Royal Society was responsible for laying out the way science is done today.
- New Scientist
Science news and science articles from New Scientist.