Lab that finds bugs where others do not

October 15th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, media, mirror, MRSA, news of the world, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, scare stories, sun | 78 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday October 15, 2005
The Guardian

A while ago an investigative television journalist friend rang me up. “I just went undercover to take some MRSA swabs for my filthy hospital superbug scandal,” he said, “but they all came back negative. What am I doing wrong?” Always happy to help, I suggested he swab “my arse” instead. Ten minutes later, I heard from him again. He’d just spoken to a tabloid health journalist who had told him which lab to use: “the lab that gives positive results when others do not” was how he described it to me.

What lab was this? Step up Northants-based Chemsol Consulting, and director Christopher Malyszewicz. If you see an MRSA superbug positive swab scandal, the chances are it came from his lab.

In fact, people have taken swabs from the very same hospitals given massive MRSA finds by Chemsol, sent them to other reputable mainstream labs, or their own, and got nothing. An academic paper by eminent microbiologists describing this process in relation to one hospital has been published in a peer reviewed academic journal, then loudly ignored by everyone in the media except little me. So how do we explain this extraordinary phenomena? A phenomena so replicable that even tabloid journalists are – uniquely – familiar with the ability of various different research laboratories to give different results?

First let’s clarify one thing: there probably are plenty of nasty hospitals that aren’t as clean as we’d like them to be, and deaths from MRSA are tragic. Certainly the UK has more MRSA than many other countries, an observed phenomenon which could of course be put down to various different causes. But we’re looking at the issue of one private laboratory, with an awful lot of business from undercover journalists doing stories on MRSA, that seems to give an awful lot of positive results where other labs do not. I asked Dr Malyszewicz why this happened. He said he did not know, and suggested that the microbiologists might be taking swabs from the wrong place at the wrong times. I asked why he thought the tabloids chose his lab (producing almost 20 articles). He did not know. I asked why various microbiologists have said he has refused to tell them about his full methods when they wanted to replicate and validate them in their own labs. He says this is not true.

I spoke to Peter Wilson, UCL Microbiologist, who said: “We got batches of the media that Dr Malyszewicz was using, we couldn’t distinguish Staph. epidermidis [not MRSA] from Staph. aureus [which could be MRSA] by whether it grew on that media. It seemed he was relying on whether or not it grew on that media to determine whether it was MRSA or not. Without getting full cooperation from the other side, it’s hard to know exactly what they were doing.”

Lastly I asked Dr Malyszewicz about his qualifications. He told me he has a BSc from Leicester University. Actually it’s from Leicester Polytechnic. He told me he has a PhD. The News of the World called him “Respected MRSA specialist Dr Christopher Malyszewicz”. The Sun called him “The UK’s top MRSA expert.” and “Microbiologist Christopher Malyszewicz”. He agreed his was a “non-accredited correspondence course PhD” from America. He has no actual microbiology qualification. Dr Malyszewicz says his PhD is not recognised in the UK. He is, however, charming to talk to, and to my delight has agreed to a filmed visit and interview so we can get to the bottom of everything. This story is going to run like dysentery.


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78 Responses



  1. amoebic vodka said,

    October 15, 2005 at 3:38 pm

    Can we have the link to the abstract for the article please?

    While we’re not entirely convinced a PhD is required to pour some (agar) media into a petri dish, we doubt that a correspondance course of any kind would be much help in learning how to do so. Though if the (news) media is keeping the company so busy, perhaps they have a suitably experienced technician or two that actually does the lab work.

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 15, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    J Hosp Infect. 2004 Mar;56(3):250-1.
    Isolation of MRSA from communal areas in a teaching hospital.
    Manning N, Wilson AP, Ridgway GL.

  3. amoebic vodka said,

    October 15, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    “Worried about MRSA? The perfect gift for a friend or relative in hosptal, Show them how much you care for their health by giving a Combact Antimicrobial Hospital Pack. Making sure they come out fighting fit…”

    www.combact.info/ (in the scrolling marquee at the top)

    (made by Chemsol)

    We’re not sure what this is all about though:

    www.chemsolconsultancy.com/research.htm

    “Anti-biotics are in reality “chemicals” designed to target and selectively destroy the surface membranes of bacteria, viruses and fungi.”

    Um…no. Antibiotics do not work on viruses. The most common antibiotics (penicillin and its derivatives) work by stopping the cell wall (not membrane) from being made properly. Other antibiotics don’t target the bacterial cell wall at all – novobiocin for example works by inhibiting an enzyme needed for DNA replication. We’re worried. We may be microscopic, but we’re not microbiologists.

    As for the rest, we believe bleach (despite being a “cheap formulation”) is still effective on pretty much anything and alcohol (yum, yum) kills most, but not all bacteria too.

    We particularly like the questionaire at the bottom.

    Oh and could anyone shed some light on why, despite having been set up in 1986, they’re only listed on Companies House as having existed from 27/07/2004? We think we must be searching for the wrong thing.

  4. Jasper Milvain said,

    October 15, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    Pedant blurt: “phenomena” is plural; “phenomenon” singular. Sorry.

    Thank you for the column.

  5. Frank said,

    October 15, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    Surely there must be a law against calling yourself a “Dr” when you’re not? Is there any copyright on the term “Dr” or “PhD”?? I think it’s time there should be, if it puts an end to a lot business cards such as “The TV Doctor – all makes and models repaired”, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

  6. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 15, 2005 at 6:34 pm

    Unlike “Dietitian” and “Nurse”, doctor is not a “protected title” under law. Anyone is perfectly entitled to call themselves a doctor after getting a non-accredited correspondence course PhD from abroad. Arguably you don’t even need that.

    Disappointingly though – and I’ve looked into this because I was hoping we could get up to all kinds of mischief – in the UK you can’t officially confer a title like Professor, or degree like PhD, unless you’re a properly tooled up and recognised educational institution.

    Having said that, if anyone in the US wants to set up a little institution where we can start knocking out PhD’s in Bad Science or anything else, I’d be more than happy to help out with admin and costs.

  7. Ray said,

    October 15, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    Anti-biotics are in reality “chemicals” … Chemsolâ„¢ has researched the latest organic and inorganic molecules

    Which, by contrast, are presumably not chemicals?

  8. e pur si muove » Blog Archive » Life update said,

    October 15, 2005 at 9:08 pm

    [...] badscience references an article in the Guardian which reveals (shockingly) that many scandalous lab tests revealing the presence of superbugs (germs that can’t be killed using the regular array of medicines, especially antivirals and antibiotics) were in fact done in a lab supervised by an uncredited microbiologist who got his Ph. D. by correspondence. While I am not disparaging the utility and validity of correspondence courses, I find it really hard to think about how a competent microbiologist can be trained without actually, physically getting his or her hands dirty in the lab, getting familiar with standard protocols, reagents, procedures, blah blah blah. [...]

  9. Thinking Aloud: The Pulpmovies Weblog » Hype that scare! said,

    October 16, 2005 at 6:39 pm

    [...] Here’s an interesting tale from Badscience: A while ago an investigative television journalist friend rang me up. “I just went undercover to take some MRSA swabs for my filthy hospital superbug scandal,” he said, “but they all came back negative. What am I doing wrong?” Always happy to help, I suggested he swab “my arse” instead. Ten minutes later, I heard from him again. He’d just spoken to a tabloid health journalist who had told him which lab to use: “the lab that gives positive results when others do not” was how he described it to me. [...]

  10. Hazel said,

    October 16, 2005 at 10:58 pm

    //Surely there must be a law against calling yourself a “Dr” when you’re not? //

    Don’t forget medics only use it as a courtesy title ;-)

  11. Tim Senior said,

    October 17, 2005 at 2:53 am

    This lab has been testing for Australian journalists also – the ABC in Australia picked up on his positive results – see transcript at this link (and you can even watch the show!)

    Tim

  12. Tim Senior said,

    October 17, 2005 at 2:54 am

    www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s1406193.htm

    Sorry, here’s the link.

  13. Peter said,

    October 17, 2005 at 3:57 am

    Here is a link to some of the comments on the original sixy minutes article:

    sixtyminutes.ninemsn.com.au/sixtyminutes/stories/2005_06_12/story_1406.asp

  14. Ian said,

    October 17, 2005 at 12:31 pm

    Amusingly enough, I read Saturday’s Guardian and found an advert in one of the sections for what was, if I remember correctly, an ‘MRSA Protection Kit’. It contained hand sanitizer (sp?) and wipes. How effective these would be is fairly dubious, as I somehow suspect (and hope) our hospitals have them already. Someone is cashing in on the frenzy without worrying about the accuracy of the science.

    How about sending a sample *known* not to contain MRSA to this lab and see what they come up with?

  15. Ray said,

    October 17, 2005 at 2:42 pm

    Yep. Fear of MRSA is driving a whole industry of people producing everything from overpriced squirty-bottle wash-and-disinfectant kits to various weird alternative and pseudoscientific products. For a sampler, check out the MRSA Support, which endorses a wash kit that comes with “an immuno-stimulator” (WTF?). Its links include sites selling Activated Oxygen (“ozonated olive oils” and “insufflation” – pumping ozone into various bodily orifices) and essential oils (archived) as anti-MRSA measures. More at its Product Forum.

  16. doctorvee / MRSA scandal said,

    October 17, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    [...] Lab that finds bugs where others do not. (Via.) [...]

  17. Tessa K said,

    October 17, 2005 at 10:01 pm

    It is illegal to pretend to be a medical doctor and treat people though, isn’t it?

    I’m a PhD doctor but never use it to impress as people inevitably ask what it is in and I have to confess it’s in French (well, technically, Belgian), which is hardly ever relevant to any subject under discussion. The only time I really use it is with snooty burocrats who insist on asking ‘Is that MISS or MZZZZ?’, then I can say ‘No, it’s Doctor’ – which shuts them up.

    I suppose it means you have a certain level of intelligence and the capacity to reason but apart from that, a PhD is sod-all use unless it’s properly acquired and in the right subject for the area in which you are claiming expertise.

  18. MostlySunny said,

    October 18, 2005 at 8:44 am

    I can’t remember if it was Ben or another writer who said that using the title “Dr” in any other sense than that of “medical doctor” was tantamount to having the word “dangerous” tatooed across your forehead…

  19. Ian said,

    October 18, 2005 at 10:47 am

    It’ll cause controversy I’m sure, but there’s a short story by Isaac Asimov which suggests that a PhD stands for Phoney Doctor. (_Ph as in Phoney_). This seems to agree with ideas I’ve read that in many subjects, they don’t read the dissertation for a PhD, just weigh it. Wasn’t it one of the sociology magazines a while back which had a paper accepted written by a randon-word generating computer program?

  20. Ian said,

    October 18, 2005 at 10:52 am

    I stand corrected – it wasn’t an IgNobel.

    In 1996, US physicist Alan Sokal published a paper on the “hermeneutics of quantum gravity” in the journal Social Text.

    To be fair to Social Text, a spoof paper was later accepted for a computer science conference later…

  21. alun » Reading to catch up on said,

    October 18, 2005 at 11:12 am

    [...] I’m collating a list of links I’d like to look over tonight, but I’ll start by highlighting one I’m very pleased to see. Bad Science has an article in Dr Chris Malyszewicz. He manages to go further than me, as he’s found that the PhD is non-accredited. [...]

  22. exemplar said,

    October 18, 2005 at 11:42 am

    Actually that’s Philosophy Doctorate – and we have every right as academics to use the title doctor.

    ‘in many subjects, they don’t read the dissertation for a PhD, just weigh it’

    I assure you Ian that this is certainly not the case in any University. How dare you decry the hard work that goes into the completion of any accredited PhD or Dphil.

    With regard the Sokal Paper it was not computer generated it was a ‘parody of postmodern science criticism, entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”

    (see www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/noretta.html)

  23. Ian said,

    October 18, 2005 at 12:33 pm

    I did say it was bound to cause controversy – and I stated that Asimov’s suggested usage agreed with that idea, rather than giving either or both as a statement of fact. I’m not a doctor of any flavour.

    Perhaps it’s that so many people use Dr without specifying what subject the PhD was gained in (You Are What You Write About, for example). My most recent objection was to a TV program with an expert on genetics and bio-ethics. The person in question is no doubt qualified, but the Dr before his name does not, I am pretty sure, refer to a medical degree – but it certainly gives the medical points he was making a certain weight.

    (Amusingly enough, I am told surgeons have the reverse attitudeand prefer *not* to be Doctor Whoever, to make a point. Go figure…)

    The Sokal paper was indeed written, rather than generated – I was mixing up two similar stories, as I corrected myself. (Was between lessons – apologies for rushing my typing) The paper accepted by a computer science conference was computer generated, and details can be found at

    pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/

  24. MostlySunny said,

    October 18, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    Exemplar – a “proper” PhD is one thing a phoney one is completely another. The point I was trying to make is that the title “Dr” has been so eroded that I am automatically on my guard when I see it in any sense other than a medical one.

    What is the ettiquette on the use of the Dr? My friend is about to have a PhD is molecular genetics conferred – how should she describe hereself? Does it differ depending on the audience ie at an academic conference/ business cards/ ordinary address?

    I have lots of friends who have made it to PhD level and beyond and they are all amazing people for having accomplished it – it really steams me that all their hard work can be so easily eroded by a few dodgy degree-mills…

  25. Tessa K said,

    October 18, 2005 at 1:53 pm

    Mostly Sunny: Your friend would of course use the title ‘Doctor’ in an academic setting – it’s an academic qualification. She should put it on her business cards if she is going into molecular genetics as a career. Using it for burocrats such as banks, telecom companies, utilty suppliers etc is handy for a woman as it subverts snide sexism (as I mentioned in my earlier post) but using it day-to-day would probably cause confusion.

    I too resent the implication that a non-medical PhD is worthless. It was bloody hard work. All you need to get an MD is a good memory and plenty of stamina (OK, I’m exaggerating).

    Anyone in the media talking about science should have the subject of their doctorate made public, though. In fact, any media ‘doctor’ should do this – I could be on TV talking about architecture or art and call myself Doctor Tessa when I know sod all about it.

  26. exemplar said,

    October 18, 2005 at 5:39 pm

    ‘My most recent objection was to a TV program with an expert on genetics and bio-ethics. The person in question is no doubt qualified, but the Dr before his name does not, I am pretty sure, refer to a medical degree – but it certainly gives the medical points he was making a certain weight.’

    I am unsure as to whom you are referring to in this remark, I should however like to point out that someone with a PhD in research relating to Philosophy is most likely better qualified to make comment on bio-ethics than an MD and someone with a PhD relating to research into genomics is most likely better qualified to make comment genetics than a MD ! and there are currently some very good PhD researchers combining both…..

    I say this is neither to decry the qualifications or role of a medical doctor.

    Mostly sunny – I completely agree to have the status of PhD eroded in the media and elsewhere is a problem that needs to be addressed.

  27. exemplar said,

    October 18, 2005 at 6:17 pm

    Can I just add that it is only in relatively recent history that physicians have started to use the term doctor – which was actually used to describe some one who taught.

    Therefore academics are more correct in their usage of the title Dr…….;-)

  28. Tessa K said,

    October 18, 2005 at 10:51 pm

    There is a flip side to people calling themselves Doctor when they shouldn’t to give themselves authority. This is real medical doctors on TV talking about other subjects. For example, Doctor Robert Winston is a fertility expert. What is he doing talking about the brain, writing books and presenting shows about religion? Is he a theologian, a psychologist or a neurologist? No. He just happens to be the BBC’s flavour of the month presenter. Should he be calling himself Doctor Winston when he is talking about God as if this gives him more authority? I don’t think so. I especially don’t think he should be talking about evolution when he believes in Intelligent Design, which is not even science.

    Examplar: in my dictionary, the first two definitions of the word ‘doctor’ are ‘a teacher’ and ‘ a learned father of the church’. Physician is the fifth definition. It is thirty years old. In my new dictionary, the first definition is medical.

    The word ‘doctor’ comes from the Latin ‘docere – to teach’ and is related to the word ‘doctrine’. Yes, this is a side-track to the main subject under discussion, but perhaps it shows that a language PhD is of some use.

  29. amoebic vodka said,

    October 18, 2005 at 11:54 pm

    If you look at scientific papers, the titles of the authors are not usually given. So there is somewhere else where “Dr” is not used as a title. It is also meaningless in that context as a paper should be judged on its merit, regardless of the prestige of the authors. This is not necessarily the case – there is a belief that it is easier to get something from a well known lab published.

    In academia at least, most of the people you work with are going to have a PhD, so using it to imply some kind of authority in that context is a bit pointless.

  30. exemplar said,

    October 19, 2005 at 8:54 am

    Actually thats Lord Winston of Hammersmith – who happens to be a professor and former president of the BA……….I happen to agree however I can’t watch him on telly without throwing something at it.

    I also work with lots of people every day in academia who don’t have PhD’s – Their called the students………

    I hope you realise I wasn’t being entirely serious about who should use the term Doctor – what we need to change is public understanding of what we are all doing then there would be less confusion, less room for doubt and fewer fraudulent PhD’s knocking around.

  31. Ian said,

    October 19, 2005 at 9:42 am

    I was about to suggest doing away with the use of ‘Doctor’ as a title in any usage – but then I guess it is harder to distinguish between those who are qualified (in a relevant way) and those who are not. Perhaps media organisations should always specify the qualification area – perhaps “Doctor Joe Bloggs, (PhD in Art History)” This not only would discourage people from using the titles spuriously, but would confirm those who *are*… qualified? experts? A medical doctor commenting on abstract art needs to be distinguished from people who have PhDs in expressive arts (or whatever it would be).

    I recall a novel where a similar difficulty in the military was mentioned – the suggestion there was that ‘Captain’ could be reserved for the person in charge of a vessel, and withdrawn from the regular ranks entirely. Anyone with experience in that sort of thing?

    Just to start a whole new argument, in teaching you must have a relevant qualification (or equivalent experience) to teach any subject in secondary schools – except RE. Many schools do employ a specialist, but there is no statutory requirement, unlike everything else…

  32. ArrogantEngineer said,

    October 19, 2005 at 9:43 am

    Actually, just to demonstrate the perils of using the ‘Dr’ honorific outside of your professional environment; I know of one chap who had a PhD in an engineering discipline who used his title when booking a long-distance flight. During the flight, a passenger had heart problems. The flight attendants looked down the passenger list for a doctor and came across his name. A rather uncomfortable situation ensued…

  33. exemplar said,

    October 19, 2005 at 9:53 am

    Great I’m going to change my career and become an RE teacher – I can use it as a forum to teach evolutionary theory……

  34. BSM said,

    October 19, 2005 at 12:28 pm

    My experience of post-graduate life suggests that the alternative long-form of PhD is more accurate:

    Piled Higher and Deeper

  35. Tessa K said,

    October 19, 2005 at 1:03 pm

    Ah yes – ‘Professor’ Winston. An academic title that appears to give so much prestige but in reality is an honorific, not a qualification.

  36. exemplar said,

    October 19, 2005 at 1:41 pm

    I know someone with three professorships – prof.prof.prof X……its really not fair he’s got two spare you’d think he could lend me one once in a while…….

  37. CB said,

    October 19, 2005 at 2:33 pm

    RE: putting the subject of the PhD after the names.
    trouble is the problem goes deeper than that – a PhD is obtained for knowing an awful lot about a very small area of a subject. I have a PhD in biochemistry but know absolutley sod all about various aspects of the subject. In fact I knew a lot more about biochemistry as a whole after my first degree. Therefore you’d have to put something like Dr CB (PhD in the mechanism of action of enzyme X) or something.
    Also some people change fields significantly after the completion of their PhD, but are not required to do another PhD to prove they’re expert at that as well (praise be!).

  38. Prof. Exemplar said,

    October 19, 2005 at 2:59 pm

    And then of course there is the growing trend for multi-disciplinary or even trans- disciplinary research……..so some of us end up doing PhD’s that straddle multiple areas…….thankfully we don’t complete separate thesis for each distinct discipline…….

  39. Ian said,

    October 19, 2005 at 4:38 pm

    Admittedly, having Dr A N Other (PhD in Astrophysics) wouldn’t be very useful at an astrophysics conference. Or whatever. But that sort of brief format would make it so much easier to distinguish between general flavours of PhD, at least for all the experts you see in the media. Maybe we should send a petition to the newspapers and TV channels.

    Is anyone else scared to hear that almost half my GCSE science class could not tell me the difference between astronomy and astrology? No wonder we’re having such trouble with the ‘not-very-intelligent design’ lobby.

  40. timb said,

    October 19, 2005 at 10:14 pm

    Chris Malyzewicz is not merely an expert on MRSA. Remarkably, he is also an authority on engine additives:

    www.bitron-liquidgold.com/how_good.htm

  41. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 19, 2005 at 10:56 pm

    Chris Malyzewicz is not merely an expert on MRSA. Remarkably, he is also an authority on engine additives:

    Jesus. You lot are frighteningly good at this.

  42. Adam said,

    October 19, 2005 at 11:39 pm

    Remarkably, he is also an authority on engine additives:

    I’m not sure that’s the same guy – he’s “Mr” rather than “Dr”.

  43. avenger said,

    October 19, 2005 at 11:50 pm

    In academia people hardly *ever* use “Dr'” or a post-positioned “Ph.D.,” mainly because the degree is really a union card — you need it to get in, but just having it impresses nobody. I avoid both, completely. Not on cards, not on letters, not on anything. Anyone who uses “Dr'” or “Ph.D.” *conspicuously*, as part of their name as in “Joe Blow Ph.D.” on the cover of a book, is at best insecure, and more likely a con artist.

  44. Andrew Gilbey said,

    October 20, 2005 at 1:10 am

    Avenger – I admire your humility. Come on – you must have used ‘Dr’ just after your degree was conferred. The downside of not doing so is that students may think you’re a post-grad and that they’re being short-changed on their teaching.

    Personally I use Dr when booking flights because you may get an upgrade. I actually managed it once – and very nice it was too. ALthough a rather bolshy flight attendent questioned me as to what sort of Doctor I am – on finding out he said, ‘Oh, so you’re not a proper one then…”. Of course Ben would point out that had I not used the title ‘Dr’, I may have got more than one upgrade

  45. Andrew Gilbey said,

    October 20, 2005 at 1:10 am

    Avenger – I admire your humility. But come on – you must have used ‘Dr’ just after your degree was conferred. The downside of not doing so is that students may think you’re a post-grad and that they’re being short-changed on their teaching.

    Personally I use Dr when booking flights because you may get an upgrade. I actually managed it once – and very nice it was too. ALthough a rather bolshy flight attendent questioned me as to what sort of Doctor I am – on finding out he said, ‘Oh, so you’re not a proper one then…”. Of course Ben would point out that had I not used the title ‘Dr’, I may have got more than one upgrade

  46. Martin said,

    October 20, 2005 at 1:22 am

    On military titles (ArrogantEngineer) you get a similar problem. A corporal might have got his stripes qualifying for a particular skill such as using radios, and get assigned to leading an infantry section which is a very different skill.

    As most of you have said, it’s a perception thing – “oh he’s a doctor, he’s intelligent, he must know”. Doctor of _what_ is the missing relevent bit. But it’s an education thing – lumping together “Men in white coats” as either know-all gurus or The Obsolete Establishment (And My Crystal Guru Is So Much More Helpful) hurts everyone.

  47. Steffan said,

    October 20, 2005 at 9:14 am

    Whether its earned or not, non-medical people with a PhD who do call themselves doctors are very dodgy people – Dr Ian Paisley, Dr Kissenger (aka Dr Strangelove). Even Dr Hannibal Lector. Would you trust any of them?

  48. Prof. Exemplar said,

    October 20, 2005 at 9:22 am

    Do you trust every medical Dr then………..Dr Shipman, Dr Crippen…….

  49. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 9:30 am

    You guys are really hung up on the meaning and usage of the word “doctor”, and yet that was just an afterthought in an article about a lab providing unusual results. I guess my interpretation of that is that a lot has to be taken on faith from authority figures in science/health stories, because either readers can’t understand the basic material, or journalists won’t explain it to them?

  50. exemplar said,

    October 20, 2005 at 10:09 am

    I personally think that readers could understand the basic material if they were given the chance……..Academia needs to be much more public facing – a lot of debates that have been discussed on these pages in the last few months are (for example the Sokal paper mentioned above) in effect academic infighting, discussions that have a specific academic context which is rarely explained to the lay person through the media.

    I think one potential answer is a wider truly multi-disciplinary communication at all levels – Why for example are the much remonstrated humanities graduate in the media not taught the philosophy of science as undergraduates – why for that matter are so few medical students taught philosophy of science ?

    Ben you have taken a step beyond most and educated yourself in these matters……but if we want society at large to understand what scientists are trying to achieve surely there needs to be wider education as to what exactly science can achieve its strengths and (philosophically) its failings at all levels, school, undergraduate, postgraduate and post doctoral !

  51. ArrogantEngineer said,

    October 20, 2005 at 10:51 am

    I suppose by pegging the responsibility of the accuracy of the story on a supposed ‘expert’, neither reader or journalist feel they need to understand it. Comfortable laziness each way.

  52. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 11:11 am

    Exemplar: I think a bit of personal responsibility is called for here. Humanities graduates feel entitled to commentate on science issues, but choose not to burden themselves with any knowledge of the subjects. Nobody forced them to commentate, and nobody is withholding secret scientific knowledge.

    These self-appointed and ill-informed commentators, and the people in the media who make decisions to withhold informative detail, are not the victims of circumstance. Anybody who wants to learn about the philosophy of science is welcome to, anybody who wants to learn about science is welcome to. Reading lists are available.

    For those who come to the table too late, we offer commiserations and advice on alternative careers where a lack of science education will not render you incompetent.

  53. exemplar said,

    October 20, 2005 at 11:28 am

    Agreed – here’s the plan then………you get the ‘self-appointed and ill-informed commentators’ out of the media………. I’ll educate the replacements ! ;-)

    Your right there are plenty of opportunities for those in these positions to educate themselves but if the rest of the populace were better informed through other medium with regard the sciences they wouldn’t fall for all the guff in the first place……….we need more engagement like your secondary school teachers event and things like the Institute of Ideas and the BA, but also we need to sort out cross-disciplinary communication within academia so that there is a system within university education to promote a wider better informed understanding of the sciences.

  54. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 11:59 am

    It’s nice to think we could push science harder, but consider this: economics is important, I should maybe have read about it a bit, maybe it would have been nice if someone had forced it down my neck at school, but I’m glad it’s well covered in newspapers for those who are interested in it, and I don’t mind skipping those pages.

    Notice how I do not have a column in a national newspaper passing comment on economic issues, for the simple reason that I know very little about the subject, and cannot read an end of year financial report.

  55. Michael said,

    October 20, 2005 at 1:04 pm

    I think it’s been an interesting discussion of “False Authority Syndrome”; this is a term I hear a lot in computer security circles, I don’t know if it’s a commonly used term in the context of these here “sensible scepticism” circles.

    Without understanding what a person’s qualifications are, logically one should not begin to accept their opinions. In everyday situations, I would hope that most people understand that “bloke down the pub’s” medical advice is not worth having. However, if we then found out that he’s actually Dr. Bloke, then we’d take his advice more seriously (depending on how much of what he’d had to drink). The more cautious of us would ask what he’s a doctor of, what institution awarded the PhD, and whether he actually has a track record for good advice. And if he’s been struck off…

    What the comments above say to me, is that we should be training the people around us to question what qualifications ‘authority figures’ actually have, and expecting journalists to be more up front about those qualifications in their articles. I think we should also be training the people around us to stop reading certain newspapers as soon as they notice the words “boffin” or “expert”, a naked lady on page 3, or a front page headline about house prices.

    Ben, I would definitely be interested in a PhD in Scepticism to imbue myself with False Authority, when I’m trying to deprogramme my family and friends from believing the latest bit of nonsense they read in the paper. (I’d suggest an exam to pass before getting the PhD though… questions like “Do you believe that there is scientific evidence that homeopathy works?” should do the trick.) The flight upgrades sound handy, too.

  56. Tessa K said,

    October 20, 2005 at 1:26 pm

    Reading lists are available? Can I have one?

    I’ve read quite a few books on skeptical thinking and logic, and some science books, but there are gaps I’d like to fill.

  57. MostlySunny said,

    October 20, 2005 at 1:54 pm

    me to!

    Got caught up in a debate with an Anthropologist and a Behavioural Psychologist (both working on PhD’s) around the whole “science is a belief system just like any other” – the Behavioral Psychologist was chucking around terms like “Scienfitic Positivism” – saying that was the “belief” that all scientists signed up to.

    a reading list of good science books would be helpful as I am becoming more interested in this subject.

    Sarah

    ps. the Behavioural Psychologist is the only person I personally know who claims to have been kidnapped by aliens…

  58. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    Ok, here’s a reading list, to be shortly superceded of course when Bad Science comes out:

    How To Read A Paper by Jean Haugland
    This Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan
    What is Science (or something like that) by Robin Dunbar
    Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland
    The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert
    Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins
    And most importantly any school biology/chemistry/physics textbooks you like.

  59. MostlySunny said,

    October 20, 2005 at 2:29 pm

    thanksalot :)

    Folk Devils and Moral Panics -Stanley Cohen

    How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World – Francis Wheen

    both are excellent books on the Media and how we are manipulated by it. Could give you an interesting insight into how all this pseudoscience manages to have such staying power.

  60. Michael said,

    October 20, 2005 at 3:34 pm

    I can also recommend Bad Thoughts by Jamie Whyte.

  61. Ian said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:00 pm

    I’ll have a look at the books already on the list (and request them for our school library). Can I recommend another two – _Innumeracy_ by John Allen Paulos and _A Short History of Nearly Everything_ by Bill Bryson. Both are non-scientist friendly, so make good gifts for those not yet converted…

  62. MikeTheGoat said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:02 pm

    I can find “How to read a paper” by Trisha Greenhalgh on Amazon but not by Jean Haugland… are they different books?

    I’ve long thought that some kind of tuition in Critical Thinking would be beneficial as part of the school curriculum (not just in science either). Francis Wheen’s book is excellent although tends to concentrate more on economics than science – what he has to say is equally relevant no matter what the subject is.

    Being a scientist I get asked all the time about the scare story du jour (currently bird flu of course) and am often depressed by the misconceptions that seem to abound. I really don’t think that’s the fault of the “non-science” public but really is due to the misrepresentation of the facts and omission of important points in media reporting. That said, people who then start to pontificate on a subject without knowing any more than they’ve learned from a newspaper really get on my tits.

  63. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    Trisha, yup, soz. It is the best book in the world ever.

    How to Read a Paper: The Basics of Evidence-Based Medicine

    Can anyone tell me who Jean Haugland is then? I bet she’s a porn actress or something really embarrassing like that.

  64. MikeTheGoat said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:25 pm

    There’s a Jean Haugland who has something to do with politics in Iowa (according to a quick Google). So not porn then. If for some bizarre reason it wasn’t that *particular* Jean Haugland that you were thinking of then I can’t help you.

  65. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:28 pm

    Got it. I reckon I was thinking of John Haugeland who wrote this excellent philosophy of mind book on artificial intelligence that I read in 1997. Still definitely not porn.

    www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0262580950/qid=1129821953/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl/026-2550652-4210060

  66. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:01 pm

    Actually, if we’re talking about great science books, I have to say “On Giants’ Shoulders” by Melvyn Bragg after the Radio 4 series was bloody great:

    www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0340712597/qid=1129822269/sr=8-4/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i4_xgl/026-2550652-4210060

  67. GWO said,

    October 21, 2005 at 9:37 am

    Slightly off the subject matter, but can I also recommend : Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time” by Michael Shermer. Not intimately about science, but very good on Pseudoscience (and he takes time out to excoriate Ayn Rand, and that’s always worth a read).

  68. Tessa K said,

    October 21, 2005 at 1:06 pm

    I’m glad to see I’ve read some of the ones on Ben’s list already. I tried to get the Sutherland a while ago but I think it’s out of print.

    Another good skeptical thinking book is How To Think About Wierd Things by Schick and Vaughn. Or How We Know What Isn’t So by Gilovich.

    I’m a member of a skeptics group in London so I’m pretty well stocked in books in that area. It’s more the science books I’m after.

    I did get a school physics text book from the library from pre-GCSE days and that was pretty helpful, and I have some zoology books. I could do with some on biology/medicine.

  69. Alex B said,

    October 21, 2005 at 6:47 pm

    i like porn

  70. callie said,

    October 22, 2005 at 9:24 pm

    ‘Dr’ Chris reminds me of Dr Nick off the simpsons :D

  71. Richard said,

    October 28, 2005 at 10:01 am

    Anyone wanting a page summary of the “scientific approach” might like to read Feynmans “Cargo Cult Science” essay. It’s quite an amusing read with no use of technical terminology.

  72. Ray said,

    October 28, 2005 at 11:32 am

    Widely available online: Cargo Cult Science.

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  76. There used to be a time when naked Britney Spears photos were an attraction, but these days it’s just Science, Science, Science. « Archaeoastronomy said,

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  78. JonathonCowley said,

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