I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That — A Book Review

Today I thought I’d try doing a book review. Not really my thing, but since I read a lot of sciency books anyway, why not blog about them? I’m going to start with a book called I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That by Ben Goldacre.

I picked this book up based solely on the title. It expresses bluntly exactly how I feel about the portrayal of science in the popular press and in popular culture in general.

The book is actually a collection of articles, most of which originally appeared in the Guardian. Goldachre tackles news reports, advertisements, and quack scientists in an effort to show how scientific data get oversimplified or misinterpreted by the media and others. As a result, real science morphs into pseudoscience, and pseudoscience masquerades as real science.

A lot of the book seems to confirm a thought that I’ve had before (and written about before): be wary of purported scientists who won’t show their methods or data. Science is about sharing as much as possible, not protecting your secret recipes for cancer “cures” or whatever.

There was one common crime against science that I was not previously aware of: misleading press releases. Even reputable institutions conducting legitimate research have P.R. departments, and these P.R. departments will occasionally (or perhaps not so occasionally) overhype scientific discoveries in their press releases.

I intend to be far more skeptical of press releases in the future. I also intend to pick up more of Goldachre’s books: Bad Science and Bad Pharma. Even though these books are outside my primary field of interest (planetary science), I’ve come to believe that the best way to understand how science does work (or at least should work) is to examine science gone wrong.

7 Responses to I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That — A Book Review

  1. A bit disappointing that the book isn’t available in Kindle format, although some of his other books are, so I may have to look at them.

    What would you say are some of the biggest sins you’ve seen in press releases or popular media? I ask because I largely depend on them for my science news, although if the claim sounds dubious, I usually wait for a science communicator I trust to either back it up or criticize it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Pailly says:

      Unfortunately, I have a little first hand experience with this. There’s an assumption at most news organizations that science news is a niche topic. If you have a few extra minutes in a news broadcast, just stick in some silly science story.

      As a result, no one seems to double-check their information. I’ve seen three things happen as a result:

      1. When there are multiple hypotheses to explain a phenomenon, the media latches on to whichever hypothesis sounds sexiest. For example, the alien mega-structure we keep hearing about right now. There is some interesting science going on with that, but the general public is going to be very disillusioned when we find out it’s just a bunch of comets or something.

      2. The media latches on to something profoundly trivial. A few years ago, the Solar Dynamic Observatory happened to take a picture of the Sun where the sunspots looked like a smiley face. It was kind of amusing, but when that’s the only thing we ever hear about the SDO mission, it makes it sound like we spent millions of dollars just to get a funny picture of the Sun.

      3. The media reports things that are flat out wrong. I remember a report on CNN that the asteroid Vesta was going to pass dangerously close to Earth and could hit us. Cue jokes about the end of the world. There was in fact a small asteroid passing within the orbit of the Moon that day, but it was nowhere near a danger to us. Meanwhile, Vesta was out in the asteroid belt minding its own business. Basically, CNN was crying wolf over an asteroid that was no threat to us at all.

      I find this sort of stuff incredibly frustrating, and I imagine it makes it harder to convince the public and ultimately to convince lawmakers that space exploration is worth funding.

      For someone like Ben Goldachre, who’s a medical doctor, the consequences can be even more immediate and disturbing. There are several articles in Goldachre’s book that mention deaths that resulted from misreported medical science or public health statistics.

      I was surprised when I looked the book up on Amazon and found it wasn’t available on Kindle. It looks like it’s not even in print anymore, which is really disappointing, because it was really good read.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks. I’ve noticed that there are more and less reliable sources on science news. Usually if a news organization has a dedicated science team, the reporting is much better. (Although not always. HuffPost had a dedicated science section that still managed to get a lot of garbage in it.)

        Usually it’s older books (more than 10 years old) that don’t make it to Kindle. A lot may depend on who holds the rights to the book. Often it’s not the author who holds those rights, and the publisher may simply not be interested in the effort to convert a book into Kindle format. (It might not have earned out on its initial print run.) The author has often moved on with new books, which do get into ebook form (which may be what happened here).

        Liked by 1 person

      • James Pailly says:

        I hadn’t really paid much attention to Huffington Post. I’ll have to see what they’ve got.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Their quality is very uneven. Still, they do have some contributors who are pretty good. One I still follow is Seth Shostak of SETI fame.

        Liked by 1 person

      • This isn’t limited to science. If you read/watch news reports on any topic you know anything about, you’ll be disappointed.

        Part of this may be deadline pressure, and the fact that there aren’t any consequences to the news organization for garbage reporting.

        I hate to say this because it’s mean, but it is also true: when I was in college, the students majoring in journalism were not the brightest.

        Liked by 1 person

      • James Pailly says:

        I think (or at least I hope) that there are certain topics they’re better with than others. The reporters I know personally seem to have a pretty good grasp on the criminal justice system and local politics. But nobody can know everything, and you don’t get a whole lot of time to educate yourself when you’re constantly under a tight deadline.

        Like

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