Add something “sciencey” to improve your plausability

There are many reasons why I am grateful to have spent some of my summer reading Ben Goldacre’s excellent book Bad Science, including the fact that it brought to my attention a paper The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. The article is an account of experiments conducted by Deena Weisberg and colleagues at Yale University, and was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2008.

jcn2Recognising that neuroscience is an area of research that fascinates the public and where discoveries are frequently picked up by the general press, Weisberg et al generated four explanatory statements for each of 18 different psychological phenoma. In each case the four statements represented:

  • a good explanation without specific mention of neuroscience
  • the same good explanation with the addition of plausible, but logically irrelevant, neuroscientific details
  • a bad explanation without specific mention of neuroscience
  • the same bad explanation with the addition of the same plausible (but irrelevant) neuroscience as in the second example

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Making the best of “Bad Science” (Review)

Harper Perennial edition (2009)

Harper Perennial edition (2009)

If you have not yet read Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, then I thoroughly recommend that you do. As readers of his regular Guardian column or his website will already know, Goldacre has embarked on a campaign to root out example of pseudoscience and shoddy science whereever they may be found.

All the usual villians are present – homeopaths, nutritionists, slack journalists, pharmaceutical companies and AIDS dissenters. Some are mentioned by name, but given their alleged predilection for litigation, and since I do not have the time, the money or the inclination to do battle with them in the courts, I shall not repeat their identities here!

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that Goldacre is merely on a crusade against high profile exponents of “bad science”. True, the author does sometimes betray a little too much glee as he places a bomb under the throne of a media “health expert” (in a way that I found disturbingly reminiscent of the Physiology lecturer, when I was a first year undergraduate, recalling his boyhood experiments on frogs). Nevertheless, Goldacre is keen to emphasise that his purpose is to “teach good science by examining the bad” (p165 in my copy), adding that “the aim of this book is that you should be future-proofed against new variants of bullshit” (p87). Continue reading

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