Friday, 18 May 2012

Who are your science enemies?

Who are your science enemies? I'm talking about the subjects you love to hate, the ones that perturb your inner nerd and make you feel like the arts might be a valid option? Mine are physics and plant science. Personally, I think quark would be a nice name for a pet chicken, beyond that I care not. As for plants, I thank you for tequila, tapenade and text books, but I'm more interested in the finer points of paint drying than plant science. This was an unfortunate fact at my Cambridge entrance interview, which opened with a plant being put in front of me with the simple word "Discuss". I told him it was brown around the edges and suggested he didn't water it enough. I kid you not. Lord knows what I said that made up for telling an eminent plant scientist he was incapable of growing a pot smile is winning, but not THAT winning...

This week at the BBC I have been fraternising with the enemy, dabbling in physics AND plants. I've been ploughing through papers to figure what the WMAP 5 year data tells us about the start of the universe and pestering plant profs to figure out how many tree species are endemic to the UK. It's been an education, and it appears last weeks Signs were wrong because I loved it.....

One of the difficult things has been realising that my lack of background knowledge leaves me incredibly reliant on the authors. I lack the insight to be able to question their methods in the way I can in medical journals. And, as anyone who watched the exploits of Mulder and Scully knows, Trust No-one. Especially not employees of the FBI or men who smoke. Or any researcher with a mortgage as one Prof told me. 

Yet we can't be experts in everything. So we have to choose a source that seems trustworthy, but how? High impact journals? They were certainly my first point of call- plants aren't my friends, but Science and Nature are. This type of journal is seen as a hallmark of quality, and can therefore provide a useful sieve. But quality alone doesn't make a high impact journal, it needs articles with, well, impact. Like Andrew Wakefield's faeculent vomiting on MMR. One would hope that anyone peddling such bullshit would be told to take their fucking awful study and choke on it quietly in a corner. There are piles of cat sick in the world with more scientific merit than that paper. Yet it was published in The Lancet. In fairness to the journal, and indeed Wakefields co-authors, the falsifications that turned a flawed paper into a fraudulent one only became apparent later (see here
342/bmj.c7452.full) but even at the outset it was a weak case series of 12 children.

The point I'm ranting towards is publication bias- sexy results sell more than methodological rigour.

One way to reduce publication bias is to seek out a systematic review- a paper that pulls together the evidence from multiple sources. A systematic review involves casting a wide search net, ideally including unpublished literature. It also requires that the criteria for inclusion in your review are drawn up before the search begins. This helps prevent the author, however subconsciously, choosing to include papers that support their hypothesis and exclude those that don't (selection bias). Like science in general they aren't perfect, but they're a step in the right direction.

Another strategy is to get a pet nerd in your enemy subject. Someone who adores it as much as you hate it and whose opinion you value (despite their inherent madness for loving that subject, obviously). If you think about it you probably have a celebrity pet nerd- for instance, Simon Singh is my maths one. Pet nerds can be a good way of understanding arguments on subjects you aren't familiar with, but of course you have to choose wisely. One test could be to establish their views on homeopathy, if they start talking about water having a memory I'd put them on the Bad Nerd pile and try again.

I've been very lucky to benefit from the extensive knowledge of several experts this week, people who love their subject and give their time and knowledge freely. It's been fascinating and has left me wondering about all the other fields I have yet to flirt with. What's next, hardcore maths? Materials science? It's all a slippery slope to having a genuine interest in art history......