Search This Blog

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Science of Lying... (Part I)

I have written here how I do not like "believe" in science.

(This is the second time I am writing this because the new Google blog interface is not very reliable and somehow all my work disappeared.)

Another thing I do not believe in is how, using the name of "science" faux (fake) scenarios are created to whip up enthusiasm for what would otherwise be foolish or stupid causes.  Most important in this is the notion of risk and correlation.  About a year ago I wrote "Cholesterol, Heart Disease and Magical Thinking" where I discuss how the notion of epidemiological risk is used to create false correlations between cholesterol and heart disease in order to sell drugs.

I thought I would illustrate this a bit more clearly with a kind of story...

This is probably the most common type of "science" story you will see in the daily newspaper or internet news feed.  I have purposefully crafted this story to prove a few points:

"As many may or may not know in the Wolf household we routinely consume about 460 ml of coffee each day and have for many years.  Over the last few weeks the household coffee consumption increased to 700 ml of coffee per day.  We noticed that in conjunction with this coffee increase an increase is problems with the tractor ultimately resulting in a complete failure that required us to take the tractor for service.

"Coffee is a dangerous substance (it contains caffeine which is a stimulant) so it seems likely that the increase in coffee could be negatively affecting how the humans in the Wolf household use and operate the tractor.

"A special new study will be undertaken to determine why this coffee consumption increase had created such a significant tractor problem.

You have seen this paradigm before in newspapers, on TV in the news - too much this, too much that, too little of X in your diet, and so on - and you are killing yourself.  Red meat is bad, high fructose corn syrup is bad, sugar is bad, and so on and each causes a variety of misery in your life.

The first point I would like to make is that the trouble starts with the third sentence "We noticed..."

Seems innocuous enough - "we noticed a problem" - everyone pays attention to that sort of statement - especially if they can relate the to situation - drinking coffee.  The trick here is to rope you on on some common thread and then "notice a problem."  If I said I noticed a problem in South Africa last week related to grain exports most people's eyes would glaze over and they would tune out.

But instead I related a simple, common scenario and then "noticed a problem" with it - since you relate to the scenario you relate now to the problem - you're hooked.

The second paragraph sets the hook.  We all know everything we like and need and use on a day to day basis is somehow bad for us.  So the second paragraph postulates that the coffee situation and the problems with something else might be related.

This is a correlation - and its of the worst kind.

Most readers would not question the correlation - it seems at least somewhat scientific and, because we wrote about how bad something is that is involved in the situation - its likely that the "badness" may in fact have something to do with the problem presented (the tractor malfunctioning).

Notice that I do not say it is affecting things - just that it could be.

You've bought into the coffee is bad scenario and, to get you on "my bandwagon" I need you to make the leap of faith I want you to - that the coffee's affect on humans is involved.

But this is not about causation, i.e., I drank too much coffee before bed time and I could not sleep or I pushed the ball and it rolled down the stairs.

Its about correlation - I saw the girl run into the house, the house caught fire, and the girl was found dead - the fire must have killed the girl.  Here there are no facts or causes - just something that seems to make good sense.

So are there some facts in this article to tell us why the coffee/tractor problem needs to be studied.


Its just designed to "sign you up" that coffee is bad and causing yet another problem.

Of course the last paragraph merely confirms this - of course someone in authority will look into this.

In actuality the tractor broke down because its old and Mrs. Wolf began to drink coffee recently.

But if I told you those things I would be reporting facts and asking you to make this leap of faith - which you would not - because you would know the truth.

If I really wanted your attention I would have involved children.

Then everyone would be up in arms about the coffee/tractor problem - because the children would be in danger.

The problem is that in our society today so much of the news is written in this way.  With an agenda - with a specific structure and story line designed to make thinking that anything but what's being suggested is pure nonsense.

Of course caffeine is involved because its bad.

If I changed the article to be about days of daycare treatment without an injury and claimed that instead of the tractor breaking down someone went to the hospital there would be outrage.

Those damn coffee drinkers - they are jeopardizing our children's safety.

If you read the link on "risk" you will see that things are actually far worse in that industrialized science (science for grant money) really is not about cause and effect but about identifying risks - like the risk here that too much coffee is creating dangerous tractor scenarios.

No comments:

Post a Comment