Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: An interview with Ben Goldacre

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  • Grant Taylor, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    I'm all for everyone learning as much as they can about anything they wish to - but that is not the same thing as developing a level of understanding equivalent to that of someone who has made it their life's work to know as much as possible about a particular topic. In my own fields of understanding I have frequently come across people who have 'done their research' but are so far off beam with the self-tutored conclusions they have come to that it is difficult to know where to start in having a constructive conversation with them. Interestingly, I have usually found them to have an attitude of far greater 'faith' in their knowledge than the experts usually have in their own.

    Auckland • Since Jul 2012 • 24 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    The problem with being self taught is that your teacher is a soft marker. The first thing, as Richard Feynman said, is not to fool yourself, and you're the easiest person to fool.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • Ben Austin,

    I ran into Ben at a beer festival 4 or so years back and drunkenly shook his hand. He looked slightly surprised and slightly drunk.

    London • Since Nov 2006 • 1019 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to Grant Taylor,

    In my own fields of understanding I have frequently come across people who have 'done their research' but are so far off beam with the self-tutored conclusions they have come to that it is difficult to know where to start in having a constructive conversation with them. Interestingly, I have usually found them to have an attitude of far greater 'faith' in their knowledge than the experts usually have in their own.

    Thanks Grant, a nice description of a very real phenomenon. There's a passing mention in the commentaries to the Chinese I Ching. or Book of Changes, of the "heaviness" of the self-taught (or ponderousness,. depending on the translation), as something to be avoided by seeking open discouse with others.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 4591 posts Report Reply

  • Bill Smith, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    "Actually, if you think about it – as a doctor, if you qualified in 1976, then almost every single treatment you prescribe came on the market after you left formal education at medical school. And yet you're expected to know about the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence, you're supposed to know which is the best treatment. As a doctor who trained in the 70s, almost all of the modern treatments that you prescribe were basically self-taught. Now, that's no way to run a health service."

    Never a truer word spoken, if you are a bad researcher, your chances of being a competent Doctor is seriously compromised. keeping abreast of new developments in any fast paced field, is paramount to successful outcomes.

    New Zealand • Since Jun 2016 • 15 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to Grant Taylor,

    In my own fields of understanding I have frequently come across people who have 'done their research' but are so far off beam with the self-tutored conclusions they have come to that it is difficult to know where to start in having a constructive conversation with them. Interestingly, I have usually found them to have an attitude of far greater 'faith' in their knowledge than the experts usually have in their own.

    It's not in a pure area of science, but if anyone's struggling to find examples of this, take a look at the world of parental advice. Everyone's an expert, and frequently it's based on subjective personal experience with a sample size of n<=3, combined with cherry-picked resources that reinforce pre-existing opinions.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1139 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Grant Taylor,

    I have frequently come across people who have ‘done their research’

    Yeah I get that too.

    But the alternative is to tell people to trust experts.

    And the problem with that is that without knowledge you can't determine who you should trust. Should you trust Greenpeace? I mean they pretty much publicised the crises with whale populations and then protested long and hard to essentially stop whaling worldwide. Does that mean they are right about everything? If you operate simply on trust then the answer to that is yes - they were right once so you should trust them.

    Personally I would much rather help people to get an understanding of things themselves so they can make a decision of their own rather than ask them to trust me*. And frankly outside my field of expertise you'd be a mug to simply trust me* and even in my field of expertise you should at least figure out if I actually have real expertise (google scholar is your friend).

    * and yeah I sometimes fail to get that right.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Personally I would much rather help people to get an understanding of things themselves so they can make a decision of their own rather than ask them to trust me*

    As a journalist, I think I've developed decent practices for working out who not to trust, and in many ways that's easier. I had a really strange argument with some climate-denial people once, and pointed out that although I could hardly pretend to understand climate science, I could confidently doubt the young-earth creationist, the conspiracy crackpot and the former tobacco shill they were citing.

    No, they said, that's the amazing thing – this time they're right!

    Mmmm.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22754 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz, in reply to Grant Taylor,

    There is every difference between having the ability to do original research (which obviously requires a deep understanding of the field in question) and the ability to validate material against a framework of knowledge without falling back on 'I trust X, X is right'.

    Typically what you find (beyond the out and out woo) is that the original research made fairly modest claims, but along the chain of PR departments, science popularisers, media reporters and commentators with an axe to grind, those conclusions have been distorted beyond all recognition.

    (E.g. the Daily Heil's continuing programme to classify all matter into things that cure / cause cancer).

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    original research made fairly modest claims

    LoL

    "Our data are consistent with the hypothesis and suggest it is possible that ..."

    "WE'VE DISCOVERED ... "

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to Russell Brown,

    I think I've developed decent practices for working out who not to trust, and in many ways that's easier.

    Do schools do much in this area in modern times?

    In the 1990s I remember that parts of the curriculum I was subjected to for social studies, or whatever it was called, involved stuff like going through newspapers and identifying fact versus opinion. At the time it seemed pointless and I doubt that was the only influence that's tended to make me a stickler for wanting to see references, but in hindsight it seems to have been all about what's apparently such a blurry space for many out there today.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1139 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    Level 2 Biology (which I don't think is compulsory) has an achievement standard of assessing public information about biology and deciding which is accurate and which is misleading, eg do sports drinks really work.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to izogi,

    Do schools do much in this area in modern times?

    In the 1990s I remember that parts of the curriculum I was subjected to for social studies, or whatever it was called, involved stuff like going through newspapers and identifying fact versus opinion.

    I’m not exactly sure how it plays out in schools these days, but I’ve banged on quite a bit over the years about how assessing information should be part of the curriculum. I think most people now can do the things Dr Ben describes when looking at claims on a website – like noting the tone, the nature of the site and the ads on it.

    And what he says about journalists assigning authority to dubious commentators is bang on. That’s what we’ve seen right through the “meth house” panic – interested parties quoted like experts. Because if you quoted, say, Leo Schep of the National Poisons Centre he might fuck up your story.

    Otoh, when Schep wrote a column citing a particular case to argue that MDMA was too dangerous to contemplate regulating, I felt confident in writing a post examining his claims and pointing out what he’d missed. It was critical that I was able to go and read original reports. Like Dr Ben says, we live in a miraculous age.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22754 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart, in reply to B Jones,

    Level 2 Biology isn't compulsory.
    In Level 2 History, there is a strong emphasis on critically evaluating sources of information.
    I think it's quite a lot better now than back when I was at high school when there was more of a reliance on authority, and very little attention to critical thinking.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2008 • 821 posts Report Reply

  • Howard Edwards, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    You mean like this?

    Albany • Since Apr 2013 • 66 posts Report Reply

  • izogi,

    Attachment

    Credit: xkcd.

    I found this part of his response interesting...

    Now, if you see somebody writing something stupid or dumbed-down in the newspaper, you don’t just complain about it to your friends. You can write a blog, and you can go out there and read somebody else's blog. And you can go out there and access papers and review articles and Wikipedia pages and blogs and Twitter streams from people who really know what they're talking about – and you can train yourself on the basics .....

    As Russell then pointed out, the internet is also a major mechanism for pseudoscience. Ben's claim seems to be that it's much easier to detect than it used to be. That's almost certainly the case, but I'm uneasy that it doesn't seem to mean that many people are automatically going out of their way to try to detect it. Sometimes it's just easier to gravitate towards the information you're more interested in finding.

    Traditional media might have lost the power and influence it used to have, but it seems that a whole new type of influence has emerged in the hands of less predictable groups with vested interests (marketers, local and foreign governments, corporations, political parties), who are figuring out how to use social media and other aspects of the internet to manipulate on at least the same level that perhaps the media used to do before it.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1139 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to izogi,

    ...a whole new type of influence has emerged in the hands of less predictable groups with vested interests (marketers, local and foreign governments, corporations, political parties), who are figuring out how to use social media and other aspects of the internet to manipulate...

    Scientists develop bullshit detector.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 4591 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to izogi,

    Sometimes it’s just easier to gravitate towards the information you’re more interested in finding.

    Man, I’ve had some discussions with Bernie Sanders fans in the past two weeks …

    But more seriously, yes, zombie facts are a thing. There's stuff that never dies.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22754 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones, in reply to Russell Brown,

    Marie Antoinette's ghost must still be pissed about that cake line.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • Moz,

    I’ve had some discussions with Bernie Sanders fans in the past two weeks …

    Ask me about raw milk. Go on. Dare ya. "no-one has ever died from drinking raw milk", there's your opening line.

    With Bernie at least you can say he has tried, and to some extent succeeded in shifting the Overton Window. Unfortunately ... politics.

    On the other hand, I am quite unreasonably happy with my new silly bird feet slippers. They're yellow (so very yellow), warm, and have felt "claws" on the front. Rawr!

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1198 posts Report Reply

  • Hilary Stace, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    drug companies would be banned from making any media statement or advertising at all

    Apologies if someone has already mentioned this, but I think NZ and the US are the only two countries which allow Direct to Consumer Advertising for pharmaceuticals. We could easily ban them again.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3202 posts Report Reply

  • Rebecca Gray, in reply to Hilary Stace,

    It's true that NZ and the USA are the only countries that allow this kind of advertising, but from what I've seen it's not as simple as re-banning them; the issue is that they were never banned in the first place. Apparently the New Zealand Medicines Act 1981 didn't include a provision about this issue (it simply wasn't happening much at the time). They didn't anticipate that when the US relaxed laws around drug advertising, companies here would go heeey, we can do this in NZ too!

    Not sure if you can access this full thing but some researchers have been looking at the NZ situation:
    http://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/read-the-journal/all-issues/2010-2019/2014/vol-127-no-1401/6278

    Wellington • Since May 2016 • 23 posts Report Reply

  • Rebecca Gray,

    But yeah I'd endorse Bart's ban on the pharma companies being allowed to advertise or publicly lobby. These campaigns for the government to fund particular drugs, when backed by the companies selling those drugs, are another form of astroturfing, but such an emotive form that they probably do have a lot of influence. I mean it's easy enough to be skeptical of eg the "retailers association" opposing changes to tobacco sales, when you can tell they are backed by tobacco companies.

    But you get the aforementioned photogenic sick person and their supporters very genuinely fronting a campaign for a particular drug, and it's a lot harder to say "but this campaign is being pushed in the background by a pharmaceutical company which will profit from it. We shouldn't let PHARMAC be pressured". Because it looks like you're saying "I don't care that this brave young mother can't access the treatment that might save her life".
    Argh.

    Wellington • Since May 2016 • 23 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to izogi,

    Sometimes it’s just easier to gravitate towards the information you’re more interested in finding.

    Confirmation bias.

    EVERYBODY does it. Me too. You look for facts that support your preconceived position. You accept supporting facts without question and you examine contrary evidence with a fine toothed comb.

    It's very human and really difficult to avoid.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Rebecca Gray,

    I’d endorse Bart’s ban

    Woohoo the Bart for King (a really bad idea) campaign gains it's first supporter :).

    But yeah NZ is a real outlier on the advertising drugs to people who don't have the knowledge base to make a reasonable purchase decision.

    I'd bet most MDs are royally pissed off with folks who come in saying "I saw this drug on TV - maybe you should prescribe it to me ..."

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

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