Answer the question

July 28th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, very basic science | 248 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 28, 2005
The Guardian

· Last week I asked: what’s the most stupid thing anyone has said to you about science at a party? And it would seem that the great British sport of moron-baiting is more popular than ever. Lots of you encountered philosophers. Guy Davidson was told that “science doesn’t tell you about the real world, only an ideal version of it”. Yup. Well, light still travels faster than sound no matter how you look at it. Balthazar Florentin-Lee met someone who told him his discussion was flawed because it was “based only on logic” and someone whose email I lost got: “Logic isn’t real, you can prove anything you want with logic. It’s meaningless.” Edwin Whiting was told that “science is how the devil perverts God’s will” (bravo!), and the popular idea that “science is a way of life you choose just like religion” (via Yaniv Chen) perhaps explains why party philosophers then moved on to “not everything is scientific” (via Heather Bayley) and “science can’t tell us everything” (via Conor McGeown). We never said it could.

· Most interesting were “folk” theories about the natural world. Amanda Fergusson had the misfortune to spend some time on an intensive therapy unit where she heard someone solemnly explaining the workings of the ventilator to relatives: “The machine slowly brings her back up to atmospheric pressure: when she’s there, then they disconnect her and she can breathe for herself.” Max Zavood was told that evolution obviously wasn’t ongoing because there “weren’t any new species of humans” (“how do you know what they’d look like?” was his sinister reply); Stewart Hotston was told that copper bracelets worked by “creating energy”, “just like petrol creates the energy needed to drive a car”. John Frizell was told that “global warming is nothing to worry about because energy and matter are interconvertible”, and Derek Sellars got: “Science will never unravel the basic structure of the universe because when we think about subatomic particles it affects the way they behave.”

· Lastly, pity William O, a sensitive soul who answers customer queries for a supermarket chain to fund his science career, and so finds himself explaining to baffled angry customers why the quoted number of calories per 100g on the label of powdered soup should go down when you add water (dilution), that GM foods are not radioactive (they’re just not), and why the amino acids in shampoo won’t burn your scalp. “I feel arrogant and guilty when I get frustrated with these people … but I just can’t help it.” This man is a saint.


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