Sunday, July 16, 2017

25/5/2017 "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre is a British physician, academic and writer.  From 2003 to 2011 he wrote a science column, ‘Bad Science’ in The Guardian.  The book was published in 2008.
The proposer had the book lying unread on his shelves for some years and in response to the repeated urgings of his daughter, a research scientist in the fields of immunology and cancer, had finally got around to reading it.  Himself a scientist, he found that it brought to light some issues – about medical research in particular – of which he had been previously unaware.

The group’s responses to the book were predominantly positive, but one member of the group (another scientist) had once shared a stage with the author and found him somewhat overly confident and assertive about his opinions – perhaps even untrustworthy.

However, there was little disagreement with the fundamental argument of the book, which identified problems in the ways that the media presented science to a lay audience, and attacked various branches of pseudo-science such as homeopathy, the cosmetics industry and nutritionists.

Our conversation about the book tended to the diffuse and anecdotal rather than the taking of positions and counter-positions.  This blog can only take the form of a rather undifferentiated list of some of the things that cropped up.

The BBC Radio Four programme ‘More or Less’ was praised for its critiques of data used by politicians and others to justify their views.  Like Goldacre, the programme’s approach is to question the exact methodology lying behind tendentious statistics and factoids.

It was pointed out by a doctor among our number that in spite of the comprehensive refutation of the science behind doubts of the MMR vaccine’s safety, the issue has refused to die away.  Non-scientists continue to stir up trouble (vide Donald Trump tweet from March 2014:  “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”) (Goldacre quoted another writer’s definitions of lying, truth-telling, and bullshitting, and we agreed that Trump was the perfect incarnation of the bullshitter).

The recent furore over the Volkswagen emission trials was discussed.  The trials results were reported as ‘cheating’ in the media.  It was suggested that if real drivers could drive in the efficient manner of the software running the engines during the trials, then the same results could be obtained.  Were the low emissions reported actually ‘cheating’?

The conventional media are the chief target of Goldacre’s criticisms.  One of our group had discovered the practice of paying for articles in colour supplements and advised against considering any information from such sources as reliable.  Personal experience with The Times on an issue had convinced him that the broadsheets were as culpable as the tabloids in conveying misinformation. 

 However, he admitted that The Guardian had so far not disappointed him, in that although guilty of occasional factual errors, it did not seem to have descended to outright mendaciousness on any issue of which he had knowledge.

We agreed that contemporary social media also offered infinite examples of the abuse and distortion of information. 

Richard Dawkins and George Monbiot were quoted as good writers who, like Goldacre, set out to upset and confound their opponents.  It made for engaging writing when someone had an axe to grind and wrote with a kind of controlled fury.  However, it was pointed out that such writers, including Goldacre, were not above using the wiles of rhetoric in making themselves persuasive.  On the other hand, one of our group defended his capacity for making decisions on the basis of facts and statistics, unswayed by rhetoric.

Our doctor mentioned the medical writings of Richard Asher (1912-1969) as being superior to those of Goldacre.

We discussed various science and history pundits on television.  The importance of public understanding of science was agreed upon, but nevertheless some of these popularising figures were rather irritating.

It was mentioned that the website ‘Bad Science’ was still active and one of Goldacre’s current concerns was the use of statins.

In relation to Goldacre’s examples of challenging the proponents of bad science, the danger was that it could bring those very people into prominence, and thus legitimise their views.  It was felt that this was a particular difficulty for the BBC, with its obligation to provide ‘balanced’ coverage of issues.  The misinformation propagated by the ‘leave’ campaign during the run up to the Brexit referendum might have been a beneficiary of such ‘balance’.

One reader questioned whether there really was a ‘golden age’ of medical discoveries which is now over, as described by Goldacre.  Our scientists and our doctor concurred, but it was suggested that maybe we were now on the verge of a new period of medical advancement with gene therapy. Goldacre, writing in 2008, could not have been expected to go into this subject.

We liked Goldacre’s analysis of the positive effects – sometimes underestimated – of the placebo effect in making people feel better.  One of our scientists recounted his recent period of time in China.  Having a heavy cold, he was taken to a pharmacy in China where people lay on beds with drips attached.  Having talked his way out of this particular treatment, he was later persuaded by a well-meaning colleague to wear a microwave heated jacket for a morning… and subsequently felt much better!

It was pointed out that people often like to see a particular doctor – the placebo effect in operation.  Medicine is an art as well as a science.

Another member of the group suggested that universities seemed to be too keen to release information to the press.  This was in the context of hope-inspiring cancer treatments that later proved disappointing.  Those with experience of such matters identified a common process by which an academic publishes a peer reviewed paper, the public relations department at the university latches onto it and promotes it, and then the press exaggerates its significance.  Where precisely does the fault lie, we wondered, when the public is mislead on the significance of some scientific discovery?  The writing of the peer-reviewed paper was in itself an organisation and ordering of what one of our scientists described as ‘fumbling about in the lab’.  Our human cognitive proclivity for identifying patterns where none may exist could result in misleading conclusions.  Another reader raised the issue of the book’s title in this respect – ‘bad’ science could be inept or misleading (as in the research paper) or morally ‘bad’ (as in the distortions of the press).

The arguments of the book were felt to be applicable to many fields of human activity beyond medicine and science.  For example, people tend to become paternalistic and defensive about ideas that they have originated or to which they have tethered their reputation.

Discussion moved onto the general gullibility of people – for example the readiness of people in the mid twentieth century to have all their teeth removed because of the ‘superiority’ of dentures.
We wondered if the data that would emerge in due course would support the recent introduction of the 20mph speed limit in many parts of Edinburgh on safety grounds.

We were interested in how different health scares took hold in different countries.

We agreed that – in principle – we should trace back the information given in media sources to its origins.  Of course we don’t always have the time and motivation to do this, so we sometimes have to take the pronouncements of trusted sources at face value.

Discussion moved onto the current political campaign for the upcoming general election, and the statements made in the media.  For example, a nurse had been featured on television who used a food bank – presented as a disgraceful situation – but we wondered how food banks monitored the degree of need of their clients.  There was also a difference between the ‘average salary’ of a nurse, and the ‘average earnings’ of a nurse (taking into account overtime payments).

We then got onto the subject of the alleged decline of the Labour Party.

And then onto Economics.

And then onto Education.

And then onto Deep Learning (your correspondent had never heard of this).

By this time the room was in pitch darkness.  Our host groped his way to the light switch and we could all see who we had been talking to.  For this reason, or perhaps because we had now put the world completely to rights, we soon disbanded and made our way out into the gloaming.

20/4/2017 "His Bloody Project" by Graeme Macrae Burnet

There’s been a murder!

There’s been another murder!

There’s been a triple murder!

No, we hadn’t gathered together on an unseasonal April evening to discuss Taggart, the longest running crime drama on UK television, but the Scottish literary sensation shortlisted for the Booker prize of 2016. However, this was not so much a ‘whodunnit’ but rather a ‘whydunnit’ as the perpetrator was known from page one. Was Roddy Macrae guilty as charged or were his actions guided either by mental instability or somehow justified by the social conditions of his time? Told as a collection of unreliable accounts; from Roddy himself, his legal team, expert (or not so expert) medical witnesses, his neighbours in the village, and even the popular press, we were asked to assemble these disparate accounts to form an understanding of the mind of a murderer, of contemporary society, of the role of the media, of mid-19th century thinking on psychology and the vagaries of the Scottish legal system. Phew! Fortunately, your scribe had two bottles of Scottish ale with him to stimulate the ‘grey matter’.

Intent on preparing for the cut and thrust of literary discussion, and distracted in opening an ale, your scribe regained attention to find an animated discussion of hats. He recorded mention of stetsons, deerstalkers, panamas, fedoras, bowlers, a fez, top hats, berets, bobbles, flat caps and so it went on. Apparently hats “maketh the man”. (Shouldn’t that be manners? Ed.) One of our number was once known as ‘Digger’ because he had once worn an Australian hat (with corks?). I opened my copy of the book but couldn’t find the significance of hats in the plot or character development, so I wondered what prompted this debate. We moved ahead.

The proposer explained his book choice. Brought up in Dingwall and a frequent visitor to Applecross, he felt an affinity of place. His great grandfather worked as a ground officer on a large estate in Sutherland, a little bit like the constable. On a positive note he liked the layout of the book as found documents and the clever writing which made the events seem real. The characters came across strongly although some were possibly rather stereotyped. The description of the hard life of the crofters contrasted strongly with the privileged on the estate. With medical background, he enjoyed the seemingly accurate details of the post mortem and the discussion of criminal anthropology, a “science” which has since been discredited. In today’s milieu, he suggested that Roddy’s behaviour could have been seen as autistic. On the negative side, he thought some of the description of the murders overly detailed and macabre, the sexual mutilation sketched over. The beauty of the area wasn’t remarked – of course, we can enjoy the scenery on a fine day but it is a different proposition if one has to scrape a living from the poor land.

He also sketched a few details of GMBs life. Born in 1969 in Kilmarnock, he pursued a conventional middle class development to read English at Glasgow University In 1999 he took a degree in International Security Studies at St Andrews, but the seeds of creative writing had been sown.  Yet, when he won 2013 Scottish Book Trust New Writers award, he did not to take up their offer of mentoring, feeling he should develop his own ideas through His Bloody Project, his second novel. In interviews (e.g. Glasgow Herald) he has cited a debt to Simenon and acknowledges the influence of Kafka, (“There are no regulations. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe… The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist.”). He talks too of the similarities with Hogg (Confessions of a Justified Sinner) and of the influence of an 1835 French Murder (a Frenchman called Pierre Riviere, who brutally murdered his mother, his sister and brother with a pruning hook.

The floor was open to general discussion.

First, we echoed the proposer in praising the depiction of the hard existence in highland crofting communities, at the mercy of the weather, the poor soil, the laird, the church, permanently in rent arrears, the difficulty of creating, let alone profiting from selling excess produce. The local people of Culduie are ridiculed by the landed gentry at the local market and unfairly depicted as a sub-species by both the press and the medical profession. It is amusing, if not atypical, that the villagers of Culduie themselves find someone to look down on in the slovenly, wanton inhabitants of the shoreline village of Aird Dubh. We enjoyed the sparse, simple prose and felt the book gave psychological; and social insight into the mid-19th century highland land and living.

Criticisms started to emerge. First, one member talked of a recent Restoration murder mystery he had read in which a woman was accused of being both a murderer and a witch, “An Instance of the Fingerpost” set in Oxford in the 1660s by Iain Pears and published in 1988. Dealing with a similar theme, the difficulty of ascertaining the truth of an event through contradictory accounts and evidence,  he felt that HBP paled by comparison. He talked of the rather unappealing character of the father. He was disappointed that there was no twist in the tail, that there was no real development of plot ( … unlike Taggart which developed the same plot more than 100 times! Ed.). He found the prose dull and unremarkable. He quoted a review of the book he had found that complained of a miserable book describing miserable people in a miserable setting, leading cribbed and confined lives. While not going that far, he could see the reviewer’s point.  Finally he said he had trouble believing the crofter’s boy could write; this did not ring true. That Roddy can produce such a well written if unreliable document is surprising to many, and this view was reinforced by another member.

A rebuttal was attempted. Far from being a criticism, the success of the author in depicting such ‘miserable’ lives should be viewed as a success not a failure. Indeed, to the external observer the existence is miserable and certainly stripped to the bare bones when compared to a cosmopolitan existence in Edinburgh or even Inverness. Of course, our own perception of what is important in life may be viewed as arrogant in comparison with a more basic set of values. As regards the authenticity of the accounts, the device of unreliable narrator may be clich├ęd, but is Roddy capable of the narrative? This is an interesting point, despite the influence of the schoolmaster. However, the preface considers the point while maintaining the ‘faction’ that these are found documents – acknowledging that no-one actually saw Roddy write anything, and the possibility that Andrew Sinclair wrote or assisted in large part could not be dismissed. It is not just Roddy that displays unexpected talent. Indeed James Bruce Thomson is also rather taken with the charms of Carmina Murchison, “clearly a woman of some education”, perhaps acquired in Kyle of Lochalsh.

What of plot development and twists? Is the book dull? This raises interesting questions as to what extent an author should embellish the truth to improve such development; indeed, “embellishment” is a common complaint in recent UK TV dramas that relate to recent real events (e.g. ‘The Moorside’, shown in February 2017 to similar critical acclaim) but in these cases the living can contest it. Who complains of embellishment in “Wolf Hall”? Of course in this case, there is no real problem of altering facts as there are no facts. Hence, some of our number felt that the plot should have been strengthened while others felt that the illusion of fact was well maintained by the well written prose. The jury in Inverness may have decided Roddy’s fate, but the book club jury is still split.

Although our medical advisor was well content with the relevant research, our legal consultant was less pleased, citing major flaws in the handling of the defence and trial in particular. First, the exact designation of Andrew Sinclair was called into question. Referred to primarily as an advocate, e.g. in the opening line “I am writing this at the behest of my advocate, Mr Andrew Sinclair”, and hence able to represent his client in a high court in 1869, the letter of appeal for clemency is signed “Mr Andrew Sinclair esq., Solicitor to the Prisoner”. Is this a basic error by the author? There was some discussion of the use of the words advocate and solicitor in the more general sense, but this issue was not satisfactorily explained.

Further, he felt that the lack of preparedness of Andrew Sinclair with regard to his only witness’s testament fell somewhat short of professional standards. In mitigation, it was pointed out that this witness had a somewhat arrogant and opinionated view of lower classes, manifest in his visit to “the well” at Culduie, and might have been difficult to work with. Further, Mr Sinclair was hardly well practiced in cases of this magnitude. Certainly, the lawyer was not prepared, but is this not believable? Talking of alternative strategies, in addition to the issue of insanity, could he have better selected the jury and mounted a defence of mitigation based on social injustice? Whether such social injustice justifies violent action all too pertinent. Alas, the letter of clemency was too little, too late. There was also some discussion of the general preparedness of lawyers in general but to avoid litigation, we won’t record it!

We returned to the allegedly weak ending. Certainly, it lacked the aforementioned twist that is so often present in current crime writing, where obvious suspects are introduced then discarded until some previously unforeseen motive is suddenly introduced to explain the crime. Could there have been a more subtle twist based on his mental state or status as representative of his class? Should there have been a more subtle twist based on his mental state or status as representative of his class? The ‘contemporary’ witness statements, the prisoner’s account, the press cuttings, the medical evidence, all combine to paint an ambiguous picture of the accused. At the end, the verdict seems justified on the basis of the evidence, but the group remained split on whether the author had been too devoted to the “factual” narrative at the expense of suspense and surprise.

Our earliest critic added to his theme. There is no-one to care about in the book. He suggested that we can only empathise with characters that have some aspiration or goal. In real life, people do not always have aspirations. Roddy was seemingly content to live out his life tending to the croft, and had no apparent interest in pursuing a more enticing challenge through education, and had no real interest in going to Glasgow. None of the other characters seemed to seize the opportunity presented. Could this have been the start of a glittering change of career for Andrew Sinclair? This discussion seems to echo the ‘twist’ in that some thought the author was skillfully maintaining the illusion of a factual and accurate account and others thought he had a responsibility to add the extraordinary to the ordinary life to create outstanding literature.

Finally we turned to humour. Again some found it lacking, but others enjoyed the satirical portrayal of the various professions, e.g. the contrasting evidence of Munro and Thomson, and of the several journalists who seemed to like a drink, surely a savage libel on an honourable profession as anyone in Jinglin’ Geordie’s (an Edinburgh hostelry) will assure you on a Friday evening. The exchanges between Sinclair and the various witnesses in particular seemed often amusing. No? Not everyone was convinced. Roddy’s new companion, Archibald Ross is described as one whose appearance “caused a great deal of mirth” but on this at least we all agreed. We felt Ross was rather out of place in the general cast, although he would no doubt enliven the film version with his visual japes.

And so we concluded. A straw poll suggested two members very much in favour, three lukewarm (“I gave it three stars on GoodReads”) and one definitely against. Oh well, first there is a failure to win the Booker prize, then failure to achieve unanimous approbation from the Monthly Book Group. We look forward to the next novel.