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Science writing update, July 2023 edition
Anti-anti-misinformation; diet drinks on trial; scientists should git gud at debating; vaccinating bats; real aliens; and vaping... IN MICE. Plus lots of interesting science-related links
Hello and welcome to another monthly update on the stuff I’ve been writing about science! It includes a defence of diet drinks against some spurious criticisms, a call for scientists to learn how to debate, and (sigh) the story of my dispute with the BBC.
This is just a selection: you can read everything I’ve written at my author page at the i.
There’s also the usual list of interesting science links at the bottom (it’s been a fraud-heavy month in science, alas, so a lot of the links are to do with that). You can click here to skip down to that section.
Here we go, then - and if you’d like more of these updates, don’t forget to subscribe:
I hate “misinformation” and “disinformation”. In both senses: obviously I’m on board with the idea that bad information is a serious problem, and I wouldn’t bother writing so much if I wasn’t. But I also hate those specific terms, which have in recent years become a signal of your political position more than any actual commitment to getting things right.
Case in point: I criticised the BBC’s new anti-mis/disinformation service (“BBC Verify”) for some of their coverage on conspiracy theory belief in the UK. They had commissioned a survey from the polling company Savanta, overseen by academics at King’s College London - but as I described in my article, the survey didn’t make any sense. If the numbers it reported were correct, then many millions of people have attended protests against things like “15-minute cities” (I feel like we’d have noticed an Iraq War-level protest of this nature), and an obscure conspiracy newspaper has vastly more subscribers than The Times.
After criticism from me and others, King’s added an addendum to their survey coverage noting that the numbers don’t really add up. Contrastingly, the BBC sent me what I’d describe as a passive-aggressive email about it, but stood by their coverage and (at the time of writing) haven’t made any amendments or corrections to their article, podcast, or TV documentary that all quote the survey numbers uncritically.
So, who fact-checks the fact-checkers? Well, I tried, but it turns out the fact-checkers DGAF.
Putting the “die” in “diet”
The World Health Organisation has been pretty crap of late.
First, I criticised their new guidelines on diet drinks, which totally fail to communicate the scientific uncertainty that was included in their own review of the evidence. What’s the point in commissioning an evidence review if you just revert to “diet drinks bad” regardless of what it said?
Then, I criticised the WHO’s cancer-research arm for adding the sweetener aspartame, commonly found in diet drinks, to their (silly) list of things that “possibly” cause cancer. Again, this is terrible science communication and will just worry people for no actual benefit. Thanks, WHO!
Debate me, bro
Here’s what turned out to be a mildly controversial view: I disagree with people who say “scientists shouldn’t debate anti-vaxxers, creationists, climate sceptics, and other anti-science cranks”.
Well, that’s not quite right: I agree that most scientists shouldn’t debate them - because most scientists are terrible at debating, terrible at public speaking, and don’t know the ins and outs of the arguments made by these kinds of people. They get steamrollered in live debates by bad-faith actors who are nonetheless good at rhetoric and give at least the appearance of knowing their stuff.
But it’s a cop-out to say that we just shouldn’t debate these people under any circumstances - especially if they have a big platform (or have been given one). Yes, writing articles and filming YouTube videos to do post hoc debunks of anti-science claims is important. But we need to find (or train) the next generation of hard-headed, rational, pro-science debaters who can hold their own against BS vendors of all kinds in live debates. We can do it! Let’s have a bit of faith in ourselves!
That, anyway, was my argument in this article (£), with reference to the discourse on Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. And to the guy who emailed me asking when I would debate RFK Jr. (possibly without realising that I’m a complete nobody), my answer is: literally anytime. Bring it on.
Australia: land of contrasts
Clearly the Australian medical regulator didn’t read my first ever post on this Substack, which was all about the many scientific problems researching psychedelics. I know this because Australia has recently become the first ever country to legalise psychedelics for use in psychotherapy sessions. I reckon the best thing to’ve done would be to adjust the law so they’re more available for research, rather than jumping straight to patients, and I wrote about it here.
Weirdly, despite the new permissiveness about psychedelics, Australia has cracked down extremely hard on e-cigarettes/vapes, and is (I think) the harshest of any of its comparator countries on this question. Which leads me to my article (£) on vaping, about how scientists for some reason press-released an n=9 article “IN MICE”, spreading fear about vaping during pregnancy - something which I’m sure isn’t ideal, but which is a hell of a lot better for you than smoking - which vaping helps you give up.
Alien aren’t, fam
A weird trajectory is the following:
Anti-woke journalist/academic; rails against the new political correctness
Gathers audience with “heterodox” views
Starts pushing the idea that UFOs are really aliens visiting Earth???
Many such cases, as the man once said. I wrote about the latest massive UFO revelation here. And, of course, we’ve heard nothing since this story came out and I don’t expect there’ll be anything soon… until the next massive revelation that also won’t come to anything.
Until anyone actually produces solid evidence that UFOs aren’t just camera artefacts (the exact same UFO filmed from different places by multiple cameras would be a start), maybe we should just lay off the UFO stories, much as I’m sure they fit into the anti-government views that so many people want to push.
Vax 🦇 the 🦇 bats 🦇
And finally… I didn’t realise before the extent to which we vaccinate wild animals, for all sorts of reasons that aren’t just to do with preventing human pandemics. I wrote about it here. Will this lead to a slippery slope into caring more and more about wild animal suffering, to the point where we try to stop, I dunno, lions from predating on gazelle, and things like that? Okay, probably not. But would that be such a bad thing?
Things I didn’t write but that you might like anyway
Anyone who reads this newsletter has probably already heard about the Francesca Gino scandal, which began to unfold over the past month. But just in case you missed it, the summary is: high-powered professor at Harvard Business School and expert in dishonest behaviour(!); four studies (and maybe more) that contain data that’s been tampered with; she’s been put on administrative leave; the retraction process is beginning. The excellent, careful, four-part investigation at Data Colada is a must-read, starting here, and there’s a summary of the story so far here.
And talking about fraud: if you’ve read Chapter 3 of my book Science Fictions, you might remember the fraudulent surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, whose plastic-trachea operations (about which he lied in multiple scientific papers) led to the injury and death of several patients. He’s now been sent to prison, in a rare case of this happening to a scientific fraud. Of course, this case was more extreme and more immediately, directly damaging than the data- or image-manipulation stuff we routinely come across.
You might also remember this guy, where the story is rather different.
And still talking about fraud, sort of: here’s a fun YouTube video that fact-checks an oft-repeated claim (“verified” by the Guinness Book of Records!) about the fastest typist in the world. I think it illustrates two things relevant to this newsletter: people very confidently reciting bogus numerical claims, and the game of Chinese Whispers you often encounter when you try to track a claim back to its source.
Even if the official journal website has a big, noticeable “RETRACTED” label (and sometimes it’s actually not that big or noticeable!), scientific articles are shared in many different ways online, and many of them just never get updated when the status of the article changes. Here’s an article in the BMJ discussing the problem.
Relatedly, here’s a thread criticising the journal Science for “burying” what sounds like a very important critique of a highly-cited cancer research study in an “eLetter” which, presumably, hardly anyone will ever see. It’s not just retractions and corrections: we need a better way of highlighting critiques of non-retracted, non-corrected articles too. But how do you ensure that you draw attention to the good-quality critiques without allowing a flood of crap comments to appear under, say, politically controversial articles? Or can we just live with that?
How it started: “THIS FREEZER IS BEEPING AS IT IS UNDER REPAIR. PLEASE DO NOT MOVE OR UNPLUG IT.” How it’s going: “Janitor heard ‘annoying alarms’ and turned off freezer, ruining 20 years of school research worth $1 million, lawsuit says”.
That’s it for another month. Don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already, and keep in touch with all things Science Fictions:
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