Bad Science

What can we do to battle bad science?

Watch this TED Talk from Ben Goldacre on “Battling Bad Science.”

Ben Goldacre begins his talk discussing the idea that we very often encounter articles that highlight the things that cause cancer (and equally as often we may find hopeful articles about what to do or eat to prevent cancer). He takes an example from the Daily Mail in the UK that lists the following as cancer causing: divorce, wi-fi, toiletries and coffee. It also highlights the following as preventative: crusts, red pepper, licorice and coffee. Spot the problem?

Bad science demands that we unpick and critically appraise the evidence we are supplied. Where do we glean much of this bad science? Magazines, television and the Internet.

Women’s magazines are purveyors not only of dangerous messages about anorexia and body image but also incredibly bad science. Before you ever read and believe an article in a popular magazine, skim through the pages and see who the advertisers are. When you see ads by drug companies and major processed food companies, you can bet that their propaganda influences the writing. Cleverly written headlines also serve to give small doses of medical promise and little in weighty science. A lot of background reading is required to reveal the science of claims promised.

Furthermore, when companies and organizations are set to profit from disease we should be wary of the science they endorse. This includes all pharmaceutical companies, of course, and even national disease organizations which receive millions of dollars in funding each year from pharmaceutical companies. These are clear conflicts of interest.

Television creates a convenient platform for a variety of personalities who proclaim to be medical experts and whose  advice many take as if they were authorities. Television programs are authored messages that are constructed to gain profit. We must always question not only what we see, but also consider what is omitted from the messages we are presented as commercial considerations affect content, technique and distribution. Television doctors dispense contrived health advice in convenient sound bites that are meant to gain the interest of target audiences who are in turn sold to marketers who buy commercial time. This greatly affects the messages and helps us to unpack their scientific validity.

The beauty of the Internet is that it is a space where anyone can publish content. The downside of the Internet is that it is a space where anyone can publish content. Science demands peer-reviews, testing of hypotheses and careful editing in scholarly journals. When we place stock in the medical advice we read on the Internet, we deny the importance of the process that upholds the quality and integrity that scientific research requires.

What is the antidote to bad science? Media literacy.

The skills of media literacy allow you to understand that media are constructed to convey ideas, information and news from someone else’s perspective and that specific techniques are used to create emotional effects. Media literate people seek alternative sources of information and entertainment; they know how to act, rather than being acted upon. We must be active and critical participants in negotiating the media saturated world we live in.

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