How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 4

The fourth instalment of the series of articles criticizing Joanna Blythman’s editorial from the Sunday Herald of November 8th. For an explanation of what this blog is about, see part 1, or the About page.

Blythman’s article from the Herald is both angry and dismissive in in tone. She describes David Nutt as being “in a huff” and threatening to “flounce off” to form a new advisory body. His colleagues are described as “mutinous and militant”, and “his indignant allies”.

Given this combative approach it might seem surprising that she then takes scientists to task for their poor response to non-scientists who challenge their recommendations. Following her own intemperate language about her opponents, she castigates them for theirs. Never mind, maybe Blythman’s own response to criticisms will teach us how it should be done.

I’m not aware of an article where Blythman has responded to criticism of her own statements (if she ever stumbles across this blog I may find out), but when the Food Standards Agency published a systematic review of the nutritional content of organic foods in July 2009, Blythman wrote a response for the Daily Mail. It starts;

The food industry, in alliance with pharmaceutical and big biotechnology companies, has waged a long, often cynical campaign to convince the public that mass-produced, chemically-assisted and intensively-farmed products are just as good as organic foods, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
The latest assault in this propaganda exercise comes from the Food Standards Agency, the government’s so-called independent watchdog, which has just published a report claiming that there is no nutritional benefit to be gained from eating organic produce.

That’s pretty much an ad hominem right off the bat, wouldn’t you say? Alliance with industry, a cynical campaign, a propaganda exercise — the tone is set before reaching for evidence to substantiate the accusations. Blythman portrays the FSA as swinging into line behind the Goliath of the conventional food industry against the poor beleaguered organic David with its measly £2.1bn turnover. There’s an expression I can’t quite remember which might help here, something about pots and kettles. Ah, yes…

Hilariously, Blythman then tries to pour scorn on the FSA report by saying it contains nothing new, and is simply a re-hash of previous work–a “second-hand study”, she calls it.

Well, duh. A systematic review is a construct which seeks out all available studies on a topic and evaluates them methodically to provide a comprehensive answer to the research question. See here or here for definitions. A systematic review sets out in advance criteria for inclusion of a study — quality thresholds, for example. If a study is so poorly designed and executed that its findings can be relied on it is not included. The criteria for including and excluding studies are explicitly declared before the study search takes place, rather than being applied retrospectively.

So for Blythman to protest that the review has no new data is to misunderstand or misrepresent completely the aim of the study. If she doesn’t know what a systematic review is supposed to be then she should find out. She’s a journalist, isn’t she? If she does understand the role of a systematic review then she is relying on her readers’ lack of knowledge so she can fool them into thinking the review is unimportant. Which is it to be, incompetence or duplicity? There are no other explanations.

I don’t intend to cover the many factual and statistical inaccuracies in her Daily Mail article, as that’s already been done very well here and here. What I do want to point out is the relentless use of language meant to insinuate the dishonesty of the FSA throughout the piece. If Blythman wants to get better press from scientists, she has to give more honest press to them.

In the next post I will talk about a possible reason why non-scientist critics of science and technology feel they are badly treated by scientists responding to their objections, with a detour into the strange world of Julia Stephenson.

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8 Responses to “How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 4”

  1. Ghizlane Says:

    Hi quantsuff!

    I see you’ve done your homework in here and went through the details of Blythman’s symptom (I mean article) 🙂

    My turn (the source): Ok….Mmm…. Let’s take a look at this problem and try to come up with a “theory” pointing its source and explaining all symptoms.

    But first, what are we looking at here and what are all the implications?

    1) We need a theory explaining all present symptoms and, hopefully, all eventual ones

    2) It’s necessarily an inter-disciplinary one (if such field/theory/domains exists), since it has to explain all the problems related to journalism and politics’ science misrepresentation; this is a huge obstacle to begin with since inter-disciplinary studies or researches are still facing the “common ground” issue

    3) So basically, we have to solve the “common ground” problem before (or in the same time of) addressing this problem; in physics terms, we need to come up with a “unifying theory” in order to solve this problem

    4) This of course does not concern only “hard” science but social sciences as well (among other humanities studies): journalism, politics…

    It looks like a piece of cake!

    OK, Ok, seriously, even if it looks huge, I think we should start somewhere… and… hopefully, we’ll get to to the bottom of this: in my next post I am going to try a “start”. Wish me luck!

  2. Dan Says:

    Does a systematic review of research in a soft science like social studies carry as much weight? In that field I imagine that the same errors in judgement that would make the original research flawed would exist in deciding whether a study was good enough to be included in a review.

  3. Ghizlane Says:

    Very good point Dan! Although I am not talking about a systematic theory at all (neither from a systematic background).

    I think we are talking about two different problems (symptoms), or more accurately, two levels of the same problem:

    1) The problems addressed here by quantsuff are about taking “bad science” researches and studies and how they are used for a, let’s say, less than honorable purposes.

    2) The ones I am trying to address are related to questions like: why non-scientists are allowed to speak for (represent/ speak in the name of) science and scientists in the first place?

    I think as long as they can do so, articles as the one cited in this blog, are going to keep coming and emerging in infinite numbers.

    Somehow, I am questioning what seems to be evident and unquestionable only because we’ve worked based on it for so long that it became granted that it’s true and the only way things can work.

  4. quasilobachevski Says:

    Ghizlane,

    I don’t understand what your comment has to do with quantsuff’s interesting project.

    The ones I am trying to address are related to questions like: why non-scientists are allowed to speak for (represent/ speak in the name of) science and scientists in the first place?

    No one claims that Joanna Blythman speaks for scientists. Can you explain why your question is relevant to the Blythman article or the David Nutt controversy? Or are you suggesting that Blythman shouldn’t have been allowed to write the article?

  5. Ghizlane Says:

    Hi quasilobachevski!

    Regarding this:

    «I don’t understand what your comment has to do with quantsuff’s interesting project.»

    Please go to my comment of the first part of quantsuff interesting project.

    Now regarding this:

    «No one claims that Joanna Blythman speaks for scientists. Can you explain why your question is relevant to the Blythman article or the David Nutt controversy? Or are you suggesting that Blythman shouldn’t have been allowed to write the article?»

    First, if you re-read my question, it says: The ones I am trying to address are related to questions (in plural form) like (meaning not just this one but more likely to address like this one).

    Now, if you haven’t done so, please read the fourth part of this blog above; particularly beginning from «Hilariously… » until the end.

    I am not the one saying that Blythman shouldn’t have written the article neither suggesting that its content is not of a scientific value.

    If you want a more specific question, I’ll tell you just this, for a beginning: at the end of the above part, quantsuff wrote this:

    «If Blythman wants to get better press from scientists, she has to give more honest press to them».

    How can quantsuff criticize Blythman’s article in the first place, if he was not doing so based on what a good article looks like from a scientific point of view? What does an honest press to scientists looks like? what are the criteria for a good article about science?

    I am not the one suggesting that Blythman’s critics of the study are misrepresenting it, the author of this blog is:

    «So for Blythman to protest that the review has no new data is to misunderstand or misrepresent completely the aim of the study»

    I am just asking «why this keeps happening? and what could be a possible solution?» That’s all.

    Now regarding the aim of your own comment to mine: Why didn’t you ask me this the first time I was posting about the Monty Hall problem? Then there were somehow more irrelevant comments than this one?

    What is it? Am I stepping into someone current research about this? Am I representing competition to someone’s own theory?

  6. quasilobachevski Says:

    Ghizlane,

    Please go to my comment of the first part of quantsuff interesting project.

    My apologies. Your first comment does indeed explain what you’re doing here. I didn’t realise that you had decided to treat quantsuff’s comment thread as your own blog.

    I am just asking «why this keeps happening? and what could be a possible solution?» That’s all.

    Is this the “evident and unquestionable” that you say you are questioning, in your second comment? I wish you would explain what this “unquestionable” thing that you’re so boldly questioning actually is.

    Why didn’t you ask me this the first time I was posting about the Monty Hall problem?

    Actually I think the Monty Hall Problem is a nice example of how science can be counter-intuitive, and is worth taking some time to understand.

    What is it? Am I stepping into someone current research about this? Am I representing competition to someone’s own theory?

    Not as far as I know! But here’s the bottom line: I guess I’m a fox and you’re a hedgehog. I don’t believe in this “theory” you keep talking about.

    it has to explain all the problems related to journalism and politics’ science misrepresentation

    Do you have a model in mind? A theory that performs a similar role in a different area? Such abstract generalities seem antithetical to the nice, compact, well-reasoned, robust arguments that quantsuff is giving us.

  7. Ghizlane Says:

    quantsuff

    If I were to apply your won categorization (which by the way is a general view on itself), I would say you are quite a hedgehog yourself went it comes to judging people and their ideas even before taking an objective look at them.

    You already have made your mind up: what any of my words could change in that?

    Now regarding this:

    «I didn’t realise that you had decided to treat quantsuff’s comment thread as your own blog»

    I think you just proved that you are what you accuse me to be, in fact, since your understanding of others’ comments and their relationships with the blog is the ultimate criterion to what should be posted here, who should be posting, about what, in which way and with what content.

    Now regarding this:

    «Such abstract generalities seem antithetical to the nice, compact, well-reasoned, robust arguments that quantsuff is giving us»

    I thought history and philosophy of science had taught us how science has evolved from inductive (investigation and inference) to hypothetico-deductive methods since Einstein and the 1919 Eddigton expedition. Popper has covered this in his “logic of scientific discovery”.

    But anyways, since you are the ultimate judge here of what is science and what is not, what is a good, relevant, compact, well-reasoned with robust argument comments and what is not… what can I say?…

    Except maybe a question to this:

    «I don’t believe in this “theory” you keep talking about»

    Is science and all it is related to, according to you, only a matter of a subjective believe then?

    I am not expecting an answer: I think you’ve taken this too personal already.

  8. quasilobachevski Says:

    Ghizlane,

    I assume your last comment was directed at me, rather than quantsuff.
    I won’t post on this topic after what follows, as I don’t want to distract attention from what quantsuff is doing.

    You’re right to say that I’m giving my personal view. This is an entirely valid activity. Science is certainly not just “a matter of subjective opinion”; but opinions are important, particularly when undertaking such nebulous pursuits as trying to imagine what a non-existent theory would look like.

    Perhaps my tone was a little tough, and if so I apologise, but I think there was some constructive criticism in there. I would draw your attention to this question of mine above.

    “Do you have a model in mind? A theory that performs a similar role in a different area?”

    I look forward to being proved wrong. If you can truly develop a theory that “explain[s] all the problems related to journalism and politics’ science misrepresentation” then I will be very impressed, and you will have done a great service to humanity. But I remain sceptical.

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