Archive for the ‘Joanna Blythman’ Category

How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 3

November 15, 2009

As before, throw six to start if you want to know what I think I’m doing here.

After her introduction Joanna Blythman gets stuck in to the issue of ‘consensus’;

As is often the case with the scientific dogmas of the day, the so-called scientific consensus is a lot shakier than it appears… even within the scientific community, indeed on the self-same advisory body, there are dissenting voices.

This should surprise no-one. There is a multitude of research into cannabis and other illicit drugs, of vastly different scope and size — and quality. It would be a great shock if all of this pointed to the same conclusion about harm. Indeed if the evidence was coherent and pointed the same way why would we need the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD)? The correct recommendation would be obvious to everyone.

It is an extremely simple matter, therefore, to present some evidence which seems to contradict the consensus view of the ACMD. It’s even easier if you’re not going to appraise the evidence you quote for the robustness of its findings (this is not meant to cast any doubt on the validity of Professor Robin Murray’s longitudinal study, which I will look at in another post). Selectively quoting single items of evidence which give the answer you want to hear doesn’t sound much like healthy scepticism to me — more like the bolstering of a dogma.

The same approach can be seen in this post from Ann Widdecombe. Personally, if I found out I was on the same side of the argument as the Right Irrational Member for Maidstone and the Weald I would take that as a sign to reconsider urgently my position, but I’ll leave that aside for two reasons;

  1. Orwell said that some things are true even though the Daily Express says they are, so it doesn’t pay to be too rigid about those you normally disagree with
  2. I don’t want to damn Blythman simply by the company she keeps, unwittingly or otherwise. I hope to argue reasonably and not resort to a kind of “ad hominem by association”, even though I hope to demonstrate later that Blythman is not above using fallacious arguing techniques such as ad hominem.

It’s worth noting that both Blythman and Widdecombe quote research which supports their position but don’t cite it, so the reader can’t track down the original research to check its validity. This matters because the interpretation given by a newspaper to an article you can’t see could misprepresent or distort it and you wouldn’t be able to tell.

I should point out at this stage that I’m not interested in the Government classification of cannabis per se, which has been done to death in countless other places. What I’m interested in the opportunism which took this row as a pretext to peddle a dreadful article about scientists and health policy in general. So any comments about the relative harms or otherwise of particular drugs are likely to be ignored.

The ACMD examined probably several hundred, possibly a few thousand probably took into consideration hundreds of articles about cannabis.These would have ranged from animal investigations to epidemiological research et cetera. As well as this it listened to oral contributions from interested parties. It assessed all of these for relevance and for the reliability of their findings. At the end of it the Council made a recommendation. It’s fine to disagree with the recommendation, as some within the scientific community have done, but to imagine that flagging up a single piece of evidence means you’ve discredited the whole review is naive in the extreme.

How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 2

November 14, 2009

If you haven’t seen it yet, you will need to read part 1 first to understand what is going on here.

Let’s start with Blythman’s early paragraph about the merit of scientific inquiry;

Like many scientists, he thinks he deals in absolute fact, offering a rock-solid “evidence-based” scientific “truth” that trumps all other perspectives – social, moral, political – and which is superior to other types of knowledge we might bring to bear on our decisions, such as intuition, experience, observation, or even common sense.

Actually, it is. Intuition, experience, observation and common sense are all very well, but all of them are inevitably coloured by the subjectivity of the individual. Scientific enquiry is all about eliminating subjective elements to uncover objective truths.

Common sense would tell you that the World is flat, because (barring the odd lumpy bit such as the Himalayas or the Cotswolds) it looks flat, especially at the coast. Inductive reasoning would lead you to think, “well, hang on… if I see a ship appear over the horizon the mast is visible before the hull. So maybe the sea isn’t flat but very slightly curved.” Common sense would certainly lead you to suppose the Sun travels round the Earth.

Many of the findings of mathematics or science are counter-intuitive. A classic example is the Monty Hall problem.

Suppose you’re on a game show and you’re given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats [that is, booby prizes]. The car and the goats were placed randomly behind the doors before the show. The rules of the game show are as follows: After you have chosen a door, the door remains closed for the time being. The game show host, Monty Hall, who knows what is behind the doors, now has to open one of the two remaining doors, and the door he opens must have a goat behind it. If both remaining doors have goats behind them, he chooses one randomly. After Monty Hall opens a door with a goat, he will ask you to decide whether you want to stay with your first choice or to switch to the last remaining door. Imagine that you chose Door 1 and the host opens Door 3, which has a goat. He then asks you “Do you want to switch to Door Number 2?” Is it to your advantage to change your choice?

As the player cannot be certain which of the two remaining unopened doors is the winning door, most people assume that each of these doors has an equal probability and conclude that switching does not matter. In fact, the player should switch—doing so doubles the probability of winning the car from 1/3 to 2/3.

Thanks to Wikipedia for that

To emphasise the counter-intuitive nature of this paradox it is worth pointing out that when Parade magazine published the problem and solution (admittedly in a truncated form which was slightly ambiguous), many graduates including mathematicians wrote in complaining that the solution was wrong.

You might think about this if you’re ever a contestant on Deal or No Deal. With all the variables of so many prizes involved intuition is bound to trip you up.

Quantum mechanics is more or less an affront to common sense, but without it there would be no transistors, and eventually no digital computers. Without digital computers there would of course be no World Wide Web. So we have the delicious irony that you can view the Sunday Herald’s website via a medium which no knowledge system other than science could produce, where you can read Joanna Blythman denying the special status of science ahead of other knowledge systems.

How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 1

November 14, 2009

In the aftermath of the sacking of Professor David Nutt by Alan Johnson, the journalist Joanna Blythman wrote a comment piece for the Sunday Herald attacking Nutt and the scientific community who had rallied to his support. The Blythman article is in my view such a sprawling collection of inaccuracy, dogma, scientific illiteracy and frankly ad hominem abuse that it perfectly exempifies many of the huge problems inherent in science journalism today. This sort of problem is discussed regularly by, among others, Ben Goldacre at Bad Science. Blythman’s article has prompted me to start this blog, partly as a case study and partly out of disgust that such tendentious nonsense could be published by an apparently serious newspaper.

My aim with this blog is to place posts here exploring aspects of the Blythman editorial to highlight the errors it contains. Obviously this means that the blog will be fairly short-lived. On the other hand some other anti-scientific claptrap may well have come along by then and I may want to rant about that. We’ll see.