We’re ALL scientists, y’know, Dr. Goldacre!

In Ben Goldacre’s introduction to his entertaining guide to not being blinded by science, Bad Science, he writes ‘At the time of C. P. Snow’s famous lecture on the “Two Cultures” of science and the humanities half a century ago, arts graduates simply ignored us. Today, scientists and doctors find themselves outnumbered and outgunned by vast armies of individuals who feel entitled to pass judgement on matters of evidence…’

Now, Dr. Goldacre, although I wholeheartedly agree with you on the charlatans, shysters and ad men all conning us into believing that we have maladies such as only they can cure, I cannot stomach your holier-than-thou assertion that Scientists Think Critically, whereas humanities students float around in a cloud of unknowing.

This is indeed bad science.

Evidence is essential for any form of scholarship. (For a stunning essay on this, read Dorothy L. Sayers’ after-dinner conversation in Gaudy Night.) We need as many data as possible before we can begin to determine any facts. This is as true for humanities as for science. There used to be a theory that England in the fifteenth century was a wild and lawless case. That’s because researchers looked at lots of court cases and found that neighbours were disputing land, that men were murdering each other, and so on. However, after enough data had been collated, it became clear that quite the opposite was true, and that England had a very healthy legal system: quite frankly lots of people used it.

Remaining with the fifteenth century, at the moment, there are ridiculous headlines about Richard III – apparently, he might not have been the villain that Shakespeare portrayed him as.  You don’t say:  the evidence, and analysis of it, of the Tudors exaggerating Richard’s villainy has been around for decades.  As usual, it’s media types not listening to us in the humanities.

The problem is not that the country and the health ‘industry’ are being run by humanities graduates:  it is that they are being run by people, regardless of what subject they read, who do not think and who do not ask questions.  You don’t need a medical degree to understand scientific facts – indeed, this is presumably Goldacre’s thinking, in writing a popular book about how to approach (medical) science.

‘Science’ means ‘knowledge’ – it doesn’t have to be limited to medical knowledge, which in any case is one of the easier sciences. Analysis is a way of thinking, and it is applicable to all subjects – including the English language (with which Dr. Goldacre is a little sloppy).

Bad Science and Bad Pharma are good and important books, and Goldacre’s attempt to get science into the medical profession is laudable.  But I do wish he’d stop sniping at the humanities.

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2 Comments

Filed under Streams of Consciousness

2 responses to “We’re ALL scientists, y’know, Dr. Goldacre!

  1. i don’t think there are many people who has as high an opinion of the public’s ability to understand science as i do.

    the thing you wish i’d stop doing is something i wrote in 2008.

  2. That is true. I can’t wait for a Ben Goldacre on 1) food (following all this horse meat business) and 2) make up (this was prompted by a vacuous Grauniad mag piece, http://www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/gallery/2013/mar/08/50-best-beauty-products). I’d also if I won the lottery buy up the stock of Bad Pharma and send it to every medical establishment possible.

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