Scientifically illiterate science pundit: Ben Goldacre
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2009/01/18
My previous post, “Scientific illiteracy, the media, science pundits, governments, and HIV/AIDS” (15 January 2009), had taken on a life of its own after starting out as a comment on Goldacre’s error-filled piece about Christine Maggiore. Now back to Goldacre.
Scientific literacy means to have learned the salient findings of history of science and related fields, for example, that a mainstream consensus is sometimes wrong, especially when it comes to novel matters. Scientific literates know that one cannot accept a mainstream consensus without further ado. Scientific literates know that if a mainstream consensus is challenged by competent people, one then needs to burrow fairly deeply into the actual evidence before reaching an eventual judgment about where the best case probably lies, with the mainstream or with the challengers.
Science pundits who talk about pseudo-science should know that the problem of defining pseudo-science has never been solved. They should know that philosophy of science concluded, after decades of intense effort, that there are no logical definitions or formal descriptions by which “real” science can be distinguished in principle from non-science, or false science, or pseudo-science. Those who label a subject “pseudo-science” should know that some topics so labeled later became accredited parts of mainstream science, while some matters long regarded as “scientific” were later relegated to the rubbish heap (see Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies).
It requires detailed and comprehensive knowledge of each specific controversial claim to reach a reasonably informed estimate as to whether it’s likely to be lauded or dismissed in the scientific future. Scientifically literate pundits who do have such detailed knowledge, and who are also without vested self-interest pro or con, are unlikely to call something pseudo-science if distinguished scientists claim to discern some merit in it; at most they might spell out why it seems possible, or perhaps even likely, that these competent people have gone wrong this time. Above all, a genuinely informed science pundit will hesitate for a long time before making an assertion that presupposes 100% certainty — and 100% certainty is asserted when something is called pseudo-science.
Ben Goldacre carries the mantle of science pundit for a newspaper widely regarded as respectable and perhaps even generally reliable (Guardian, UK). I admit, though, that I hadn’t heard of him before his recent piece about Christine Maggiore appeared. It’s a shoddy, uninformed disgrace to journalism which exposes Goldacre as a scientific illiterate.
Goldacre transgresses what ought to be a sine qua non of science punditry and responsible journalism by feigning knowledge that he doesn’t possess. His ignorance about Maggiore is illustrated in the very first paragraph when he describes her as “lauded in the American media”. Perhaps he has never come across the Los Angeles Times, published in Christine’s home town, where she has been roundly maligned, indeed persecuted. All the information is readily available online, including a complete file of the material about Maggiore and her daughter in the Los Angeles Times.
The second paragraph by Goldacre describes Maggiore as HIV-positive, when anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with her experience knows that she suffered a succession of positive, negative, and inconclusive tests, the very experience that led her to look into what’s actually known about HIV/AIDS. In the same paragraph, Goldacre asserts about breastfeeding that it “has been shown that this increases the risk of maternal transmission” — when the very opposite happens to be the case, to the considerable and ongoing consternation of mainstream researchers (“More HIV, less infection: the breastfeeding conundrum”, 21 November 2007).
About Maggiore’s daughter, Goldacre is sure enough right, that “The coroner attributed the death to Aids” [sic, British usage], but he fails to mention that this coroner was long infamous for incompetence or corruption or both, that he made the “AIDS” diagnosis in a way that suggests it was only because he had come to know who the mother was, and that there is a still-pending law-suit against the coroner for disseminating his conclusion without proper evidential basis.
“Maggiore’s views on HIV were driven by the work of Peter Duesberg” is also untrue. Parroting the description of Duesberg as an “AIDS denier” illustrates how Goldacre simply repeats sound-bites unthinkingly: Duesberg has never denied that AIDS exists, in fact he has offered explanations for what brought it about. Nor has Duesberg done “very well with journalists”. Neville Hodgkinson did not learn from Duesberg, he discovered for himself in Africa that HIV/AIDS there is a colossal mistake; Hodgkinson was instructed by people like the Krynens, who had gone to Africa as conventional AIDS charity workers and then discovered at first hand that HIV/AIDS theory is wrong.
One can, I suppose, excuse a Pommie (Englishman) who calls Nature “probably the world’s most important academic journal”, but a scientifically literate pundit would not do so, recalling perhaps the words of Nobelist Paul Lauterbur that the history of science could be written in terms of paper rejected by Nature [“Nobel Prizes illustrate how research is done and evaluated”, 21 October 2008].
Goldacre is not alone, of course, in accepting results from a “demographic modelling study” as being so reliable as to be worth disseminating further; but, again, no self-respecting scientifically literate person should do so.
The peroration of Goldacre’s screed is, “Hundreds of thousands of lives, perhaps millions, have been lost because of a stupid idea, promoted by stupid people.”
No scientific literate would confuse being wrong on a matter of medical science with being stupid; by Goldacre’s criterion, he himself is stupid many times over. Nor would any thoughtful person label someone as stupid just because that person had an idea that might be called stupid; Goldacre’s clear implication is that he has never himself had an idea that might be called stupid, suggesting an infallibility nothing short of Pope-like or God-like.
I simply repeat Goldacre’s last two sentences, for they can be properly applied to the people who, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, continue to insist on HIV/AIDS theory:
“To the best of my knowledge, not one has either apologised or clarified their stance. Just don’t let anyone tell you pseudoscience is harmless.”
Indeed, much harm has been done in the name of the pseudo-science of HIV/AIDS [“HIV/AIDS and parapsychology: science or pseudo-science?”, 30 December 2008].
The only justification for disseminating what columnists, experts, pundits have to say is that the rest of us might learn something that we would be unlikely to know already. Goldacre merely repeats sound-bites, mis-information, and mis-interpretations that have made the rounds for a long time. He’s not doing his job.