The Mystery Of The Steaming Turd

January 20th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, ITV, media, postmodernist bollocks, references, roland kapferer, statistics, telegraph, times | 87 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday January 21, 2006
The Guardian

I seem to have opened up a whole new front of bad science by looking into the high end hi-fi industry: but that will have to wait for next week. “Scientists claimed yesterday that they have solved the mystery behind the success of Agatha Christie’s novels,” says the Telegraph. “Novelist Agatha Christie used words that invoked a chemical response in readers and made her books ‘literally unputdownable’, scientists have said,” according to the BBC.

What could this chemical response be? Who did these astonishing experiments? Over to the Sunday Times: “the study by neuro-linguists at the universities of London, Birmingham and Warwick shows that she peppered her prose with phrases that act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction. “Christie’s language patterns stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain,” said Dr Roland Kapferer, who co-ordinated the research. “The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.” ”

This important work was to be revealed in a documentary, The Agatha Christie Code, on ITV1, over Chsistmas. I watched it: nothing. They don’t mention the words “serotonin”, “endorphin”, or even the clumsy neophrasism “neurological opiates”, a single time. Not once. The closest they come is when some hypnotist bloke called Paul McKenna walks in and says: “I believe the main reason agatha christie is so successful is because of the pattern of addiction that she creates in her readers through brain chemistry.” Oh, and a self-help guru is introduced as “an expert in a new science of language, Neurolinguistic Programming” – which might surprise neuroscientists, linguists, and programmers – but he doesn’t say much.

In fact the sole substance of their research into the “science of Agatha Christie’s success”, was counting up how often she used different words in her books: it turns out that Christie used simple words, like “said” instead of “replied”, and this made her books a bit easier to read and, er, hypnotic. Fair enough.

But where did all these authoritative neuroscience quotes come from? Clearly I had to get hold of “project leader Dr Roland Kapferer PhD”. He was difficult to track down, as he is not a neuroscientist, but an “assistant producer” in TV, and writer of this show. I asked him, by now with a heavy heart: what was the evidence for his neuroscience heavy quotes, that appeared all over the newspapers?

His response was so extraordinary that I have reproduced it, in its entirety, for your amusement, below. I highly recommend reading it.

First he told me that this neuroscience stuff was a joke, and we should have all been media savvy enough to know that from the start. Read his quotes again. If they’ll let me, I’ll lend you the show on DVD, and you can decide for yourself how obvious the joke was.

Then he told me that the journalists writing about his program had misrepresented him. The Sunday Times article, in particular, “was not a particularly accurate report on what I said”. Ouch, tiger. Well, just to be absolutely clear, I’ve also posted his press release, for the show, in full, no misreporting possible, on badscience.net, for you to read yourself.

Amongst other guff, in black and white, as clear as day, this press release contains key phrases, such as: “higher than usual activity in the brain. These phrases act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction. The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.”

Then finally, Kapferer gets all philosophical on my ass. “Like Jerry Fodor I’m dubious about a lot of the popular excitement regarding fMRI and PET and it was partly my intention to lampoon the very idea of PET as a way of understanding human creativity.” Right. “This goes also for the discussion of seretonin [sic] and endorphins and all the stuff about “brain activity.” Mmm hmmm. “Following Paul Feyerabend I would argue that science knows no ‘bare facts.’ And no such clearly defined process as a ‘scientific method’. Even the definitions of “experiment”, “evidence” etc vary wildly.”

It’s the kind of email that leaves you thinking: did I order this? I asked for some reasonable evidence to support his outlandish, extensive, widely reported, authoritative and fantastical assertions about serotonin and Agatha Christie. None was forthcoming.

So I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the public are confused about science, for the simple reason that the media is full of grandiose humanities graduates, acting as self-appointed experts and science communicators, who construct their own parody of what they think science is: and then, to compound their crime, they go on to critique science, as if their parody was the reality.

And did I mention that Christie’s book sales were slipping until rebranded by Chorion PLC; that the “research group” into her work was assembled specifically for the ITV program; that Chorion have recently relaunched her back catalogue; and ITV have signed a deal to double their order for Agatha Christie adaptations in the next year? Can we have some science on telly, please.

Here is the press release for the program:

(see if you can spot the bit where it’s obvious they were only joking).

Scientists crack the Agatha Christie code

Agatha Christie’s books may be literally addictive, claim scientists

LONDON. Monday, 19 December 2005

The mystery of the phenomenal
success of the world’s best-selling novelist, Agatha Christie, may
finally have been solved by a team of British scientists.

The results are revealed in The Agatha Christie Code, a new
documentary produced by 3DD Productions to air on ITV1 at 4pm,
Tuesday, 27 December.

A detailed computer analysis of Christie’s literary output undertaken
by linguistic experts from the University of Warwick, University of
Birmingham, London University and King’s College, London, has found a
clear pattern of recurring literary devices that stimulate higher than
usual activity in the brain.

These phrases act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and
endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure
and satisfaction.

The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing
literally unputdownable.

According to the study, Christie repeatedly employs literary
techniques which at first glance appear deceptively simple but in fact
resemble many of the patterns used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a
cognitive science employed by hypnotherapists and psychologists which
is concerned with the importance of words in ordering thoughts and
behaviour.

This raises the possibility that the combinatorial structure of a
Christie novel creates physiochemical responses in the reader that
have the effect of causing people to want to seek them out over and
over again, thereby making Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.

The research may finally explain why Agatha Christie ranks as the
best-selling novelist of all time with an estimated two billion copies
of her books in print. Nearly 30 years after her death, Christie is
still as popular as ever, selling millions of books around the world
each year. It is often said that she is outsold only by the Bible and
Shakespeare.

Among the findings are the following revelations:

 As Christie’s novels develop towards the plot dénouement, the
sentence structures reduce in complexity. The books become easier to
read as they go along, thereby increasing the reader’s levels of
excitement and stimulating the brain’s natural opiates.

 Christie makes uncommon use of words and phrases in connecting
passages which at first glance may appear separate and distinct but
add up to convey a common message to the reader’s unconscious mind.
(For example, seemingly innocuous sentences such as “I’d rather die
than go swimming” and phrases like “grave mistake” and “good grief”
can often be found in the same passage, thus leading the reader to
feel the overwhelming presence of death. Christie’s use of such a
device reflects the notions of Embedded Commands and Phonological
Ambiguity used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, whereby readers’ minds
are promoted to think about certain actions, qualities or feelings
without those thoughts necessarily becoming conscious.)

 The author’s frequent use of the dash (‘-’) creates a faster paced
unreflective narrative. This type of narrative structure entices the
reader on and is similar to the long mesmerizing sentences employed by
hypnotherapists. Each sentence thus reaches across towards the next in
a way which spurs the reader on to keep reading and not to dwell on
the semantic possibilities of the previous one.

 Christie deliberately makes use of a repetitive core vocabulary and
everyday English. These devices force readers to concentrate on the
plot and the clues rather than be distracted by clever wordplay.
Readers of Christie are seldom distracted by heavy use of adjectival
or adverbial phrases (the statistical count of these type of phrases
is proportionally far lower than any of contemporaries such as Dorothy
L. Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

Comment on the results, project leader, Dr Roland Kapferer PhD, said:

“It is extraordinary just how timeless and popular Agatha Christie’s
books remain. These initial findings indicate that there is a
mathematical formula that accounts for her phenomenal success. I am
convinced that our research has come one step closer to defining what
it means for a book to be unputdownable. Our next step is to seek to
replicate these experiments with other leading authors to discover
whether their writings cause similar neurological activity among
readers. Whether Christie herself was aware that her words contained
such powerful neural triggers is another matter for debate and may
well remain an enduring mystery in itself.”

Dr Pernilla Danielsson, Academic Director of the Centre for Corpus
Research at School of Humanities, University of Birmingham, said:

“The lack of variation in her words can mean that Christie is
perceived to be a poor writer, however one could also say that she is
limiting her vocabulary deliberately so that the reader concentrates
on the clues and the plot. By focusing on using common words, the
dialogue text became closer to actual conversational language. This is
something she develops throughout her career and we can see in her
later books that she was keen on fixed phrases like ‘more or less’ and
‘a day or two’ which are so common in spoken language.”

The Agatha Christie Code, ITV1 at 4pm, Tuesday, 27 December 2005

- ends -

For further information and high resolution images, contact:

Sally Skinner
ITV Press Office
020 7737 xxxx

Andrew Sholl
Portland for 3DD
020 7404 xxxx

About 3DD Productions
3DD Productions is an independent film and television production
company specialising in live event programming, high profile
documentaries and independent films. It is a joint venture between
leading European independent music and entertainment distributor, 3DD
Entertainment Ltd, and producer Andrew Higgie, who for the past four
years ran the Filmed Entertainment Division of Clear Channel
Entertainment (Europe).

About Agatha Christie:
Known the world over as the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie
(1890-1976) is the world’s best-known mystery writer. Her books have
sold over a billion copies in the English language and another billion
in over 45 foreign languages. She is outsold only by the Bible and
Shakespeare.

Here is my correspondence with “project leader Dr Roland Kapferer PhD”:

hi roland,

here are the questions i was wanting to run by you:

Who funded the academic research that is referred to in the press
releases, the many news articles, and in the tv program?

Has the research been published?

What are the references for these papers?

What is the evidence for this quote, which appears in all the
newspaper reports covering the story:

“Christie’s language patterns stimulate higher than usual activity in
the brain. The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s
writing literally unputdownable.”

Specifically, what experiment was done to show this? Was Christie
compared to other authors work? What was measured in the experiment?
Was it SPECT or PET to look at release of opiates and serotonin
directly? Or was this inferred from bloodflow data?

And what was the experiment done to show that agatha christie will
“raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in
the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.”

What are the jobs of the “linguistic experts from the University of
Warwick, University of Birmingham, London University and King’s
College, London” who have “found a clear pattern of recurring literary
devices that stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain”? How
did they measure this higher than usual activity, or from what other
research measuring brain activity do they infer this, and what do you
mean by brain activity?

And lastly, you are described as “project leader, Dr Roland Kapferer
PhD” and quoted delivering all the scientific information in all the
stories. What do you do for a living? And are you the cultural studies
theorist who wrote this article in the journal Social Analysis :

“It’s a small world after all, or, consultancy and the disneyfication
of thought” Social Analysis, March, 2003 by Roland Kapferer?

my copy deadline is next weds,

many thanks,

b

Roland Kapferer to ben

Hi Ben,

I’m sorry we were unable to speak on the phone – I hope you received
the message I left you. I’m currently travelling and so I’m forced to
write this from an internet cafe in Australia.

It has been interesting to see the responses to our televsion program
- which was always intended as a provocation of sorts, something which
might set the cat amongst a few stuffy, puffed up pigeons! It has also
been at times hilarious and more than a little depressing to witness
the ways in which newspapers and journalists operate. All that was
written was based on one very quick interview I did with the Sunday
Times. This article was not a particularly accurate report on what I
said and things spiralled downward from there. Indeed, the Guardian
used this interview as the basis for its own shoddy report. Why
investigate something when you can simply repeat what someone else has
already written!

This is not a case of bad science but of good science meeting bad journalism!

Needless to say, “The Agatha Christie Code” was always intended to be
a little tongue in cheek and viewers were supposed to get the irony
with which some of the information was delivered. (Surely the very
title of the program with its obvious reference to the popular
interest in “codes” after the Da Vinci Code should have been a clue!)
This is not to say, of course, that the tv show was not reporting a
serious study – a great deal of careful computer aided research was
undertaken – but NO PET SPECT or fMRI was done. Like Jerry Fodor,
www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n19/fodo01_.html, I’m dubious about a lot of
the popular excitement regarding fMRI and PET and it was partly my
intention to lampoon the very idea of PET as a way of understanding
human creativity. This goes also for the discussion of seretonin and
endorphins and all the stuff about “brain activity.”

[Check it out: he is so clever, he was mocking science by overstating
the science in his program to a journalist.]

But I need to get to your questions.

Firstly one thing should be clear from the outset. The research was
funded by 3DD productions a UK television production company headed by
Andrew Higgie. This is an innovative production company which aims to
create thought provoking programs that go against the vulgar trend of
a lot of British tv – reality shows, list shows etc

I think you’ll agree that we were able to introduce in an entertaining
way some concepts which would have been quite unexpected for regular
watchers of ITV1 or Agatha Christie fans – long distance nested
dependencies, syntactic parsing, Lacanian psychoanalysis, discrete
combinatorial systems etc. A remarkable achievment given the poor
condition of the current UK television landscape!

The idea for the program was initially suggested by Andrew Higgie who
hired me to organise the academic side of things. We began from a very
simple question: is there any reason why Agatha Christie has sold more
books than anyone else besides Shakespeare? Is there a scientific way
of understanding her monumental success? I took this starting point as
an opportunity to pose some serious questions about writing and
reading, science and even get a little dig at some popular
universalist-cognitivist notions about the human mind! It seems a lot
of people have taken the bait -
www.raygirvan.co.uk/apoth/thought.htm. This guy really didn’t
get it at all!

The research is indeed serious and it is what should be understood as
“good science.” I understand good science as Albert Einstein
understood it – as a largely un-systematic and opportunistic
enterprise. Good science is made up of multiple complex procedures and
cannot be reduced to rules and methodologies posed in advance without
regard to the socio-cultural and historical conditions in which it is
undertaken. (Of course you will recognise that I am not thereby making
claim for some simple minded relativist position. I argue that the
context of all thought is vital to its imaginary and that no
scientific potential is limited or reducible to its context.
Nevertheless it is entirely necessary for all scientific thought to
examine the context in which its own imagined constructs are possible.
I very much believe in science but not science as it has been twisted
and distorted by positivists.)

Following Paul Feyerabend I would argue that science knows no ‘bare
facts.’ And no such clearly defined process as a ‘scientific method’.
Even the definitions of “experiment”, “evidence” etc vary wildly.

Again, what we have here is not a case of “bad science” but good
science meeting bad journalism!

The statement reported in the press about language patterns which
stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain and release
neurological opiates is of course a speculative proposition based on
some comments by hypntists Paul Mckenna and Richard Bandler. It is of
course guess-work and playful guesswork at that. And why not? There is
no reason that I can see why this is not acceptable as part of a
scientific study. Speculation and guess work is part of all scientific
practice.

Christie was compared to other authors by Dr Pernilla Danielsson at
the department of English University of Birmingham using the Bank of
English Corpus and a clustering tool provided by Dr Colin Frayn Dr
Andrew Pyke and Mr Oliver Mason. The Bank of English is a 530 million
word corpus (language database) compiled by Harper Collins, Glasgow
and University of Birmingham. Data was run in the clustering tool
which works on various vector analyses and attempts to cluster the
input. Christie was specifically compared with Conan Doyle and the
British Books section from the Bank of English. Dr Richard Forsyth a
research Fellow in Applied Linguistics from Warwick University also
ran some satistical programs he wrote on Christie and other authors
such as PD James. Dr Marcus Dahl who is a Research Fellow on the John
Ford project at the School of Advanced Study at the Univeristy of
London also made extensive use of a Concordance program (designed by
RJC Watt at Dundee). Dr Willard McArty and Dr Marilyn Deegan at the
Humanities Computing Centre at Kings College also discussed the
project with me and helped me to refine some of the ideas.

The research has not been published yet. Dr Danielsson and Dr Forsyth
both told me they are considering writing papers on their research.

I have a PhD in Philosophy from the Macquarie University, New South
Wales, Australia. I have taught at Macquarie Univerisity and the
University of New South Wales. I have published in the fields of
philosophy, anthropology and art theory. Yes, I am the author of the
article in Social Analysis which you mention. I also work in
television as an associate producer. I have produced another
television program in Australia on religion. I have worked extensively
as a popular musician in Australia and Japan – hence the “Buckaroo
Banzai” reference I read in one blog about the show! I’m happier with
“philosopher” or “musician” than I am with “cultural studies
theorist”. I am certainly NOT a cultural studies theorist – I am, on
the contrary, a serious social scientist.

I hope all this is sufficient answer to your questions. I expect that
you will disagree with lots of what I have written here and I would
heartily welcome any comments you might have. Lets discuss this
further. After all, this was the idea behind The Agatha Christie Code
- to get people to think and discuss the many different ideas it
raised.

I hope to hear from you soon,

EDIT 29/11/06:

This is Kapferer’s only response to my piece so far, broadcast on Triple J radio in Australia last Sunday:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I think he makes some very good points early on.


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87 Responses



  1. JohnHankinson said,

    January 21, 2006 at 2:12 am

    Eurgh – i’m still not sure that social scientist means anything beyond fluffy scientist. Common sense is ever so common after all…

  2. katie said,

    January 21, 2006 at 2:46 am

    You know, I would almost have guessed from the poor writing quality of the press release (big words poorly patched together by phrases like “literally unputdownable”) that the whole thing was put together by someone who didn’t know what they were doing. Strangely enough, I find the more grandiose the humanities grad, the poorer their writing and the more big words they try to use to feel important.

    Today, I even had a fellow university student come to my door earnestly campaigning with a number of statistics and other “facts” for their somewhat fringe yet national political party (I’m in Canada) and explaining that as a species, humans are “de-evolving” as exemplified by our increased rates of asthma. Dear Lord.

  3. J Dawson said,

    January 21, 2006 at 5:04 am

    It’s funny; intended irony aside, he bemoans the state of “poor” television being produced, yet produces his own brand of crap – justified and differentiated only by him.

    I am Australian as well, we have a word for that here, it’s: wanker.

  4. Andy said,

    January 21, 2006 at 6:19 am

    “Again, what we have here is not a case of “bad science” but good
    science meeting bad journalism!”

    I’ll agree with that.

    Oh wait, did he mean the newspaper stories rather than the TV show and press release?

  5. Tom P said,

    January 21, 2006 at 7:42 am

    We began from a very simple question: is there any reason why Agatha Christie has sold more books than anyone else besides Shakespeare?

    I’d imagine the fact that she wrote more than eighty of the bloody things may have given her something of a head start.

  6. Oldtoolie said,

    January 21, 2006 at 7:55 am

    Wow, that’s as post-modernist as all git out, as we might say in Texas. Really awesome. Roland Kapferer might have a future in brand management at the White House.

  7. TXH said,

    January 21, 2006 at 7:55 am

    Actually, does anyone else find it worrying that Macquarie University gave this man a doctorate in philosophy? To me, it doesn’t say much about the department’s ability to train students to avoid fallacies and rubbish arguments, or the dept’s quality control. Humanities graduates trained to that level really shouldn’t be that thick.

    Plus I’m so sick of the excuse of ‘trying to provoke discussion’ (a la the disingenuous ‘rationale’ for teaching ID) being used to justify coming out with all sorts of rubbish. For god’s sake, form a cult or something, but don’t pretend you’re an intellectual.

  8. HarryR said,

    January 21, 2006 at 10:30 am

    The ‘everyone should have known it was tongue in cheek’ argument isn’t ridiculous, just because puffs for forthcoming TV shows always claim strong results when they’ve only got weak ones, emphasise the sensational-but-speculative over the dull-but-provable, and so on. They’re advertising, not journalism, and some of the responsibility for checking *exactly* what the program says should lie with the journalist who covers it.

    On the other hand, the stuff about brain activity goes beyond exaggeration and selective reporting – it is simply a lie. I have no idea whether press releases are covered under the Trades Descriptions Act, or any similar piece of legislation, but it seems to me he’s trying to sell a product by lying about what it is.

    I remember seeing some of the press when this came out, and I assumed it was overclaiming and dressing up the results in sensational language, but it didn’t occur to me that their idea of measuring brain activity was talking to Paul McKenna.

  9. NickD said,

    January 21, 2006 at 11:21 am

    Oh dear! Not another philosopher! I seem to half-remember a quote from a Richard Dawkins book that may be appropriate – “educated beyond the capacity for analytical thought”. He was referring to another well-known philospher but it could equally apply here.

  10. Meena said,

    January 21, 2006 at 11:28 am

    Is the popularity of Agatha Christie’s work any more confunding than that of J K Rowling’s?

    Will we soon find someone wasting time and resources to research why?

  11. WireTrip said,

    January 21, 2006 at 11:43 am

    “I have no idea whether press releases are covered under the Trades Descriptions Act, or any similar piece of legislation.”

    Absolutely! I was going to ask the very same thing myself. Incidentally, is there any legisaltion to cover the use of bogus, questionable or just plain irrelevant qualifications in order to gain ‘authority’ over the public? (Start of slightly off-topic rant) Having spent a number of years slaving away to gain a PhD by pure hard, soul-destroying work myself, I find it increasingly annoying to see the title ‘Dr’ used by people:

    1) Who have bought their PhD from some bizarre, unacredited certificate shop. Here, of course, I refer to a certain well known TV coprophiliac amongst others.
    2) People who have received their doctorates in the time-honoured exchange for endowments and funding.
    3) Certain radio DJs and Rap artists…

    Generally, these people (except maybe the third group) are cynically using the title to gain a hold over the public (and the humanities graduates – but not postgrads :-) in order to foist upon them everything ranging from stuff they just don’t really know anything about to snake-oil style quackery in general. Actually, I suppose I am mainly referring to the first group- this is becoming a bit like the ‘Spanish Inquistion’ sketch in reverse :-) The bottom line: I think that it should be as illegal to sell yourself by employing false or irrelevant titles as selling goods using false descriptions…

    Apologies if there is already a section devoted to this. Could we have a name-and-shame page, maybe called “Experts” (including the quote marks), with a simple table listing these people?

  12. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 21, 2006 at 11:58 am

    From the categories listed down the right hand side of the page:

    “PhDs, doctors and qualifications”

    www.badscience.net/?cat=3

  13. Frank said,

    January 21, 2006 at 1:43 pm

    Nothing riles me up so much as post-moderism, and the charge toward pre-Enlightenment thinking that it encourages. (or should that be “back to”?)

    As for a rogues gallery of bad scientists, sounds like an excellent idea. In fact, I think I’ll do one myself. First up: Kammerer, Lysenko and Dr Nick Riviera.

  14. Dean Morrison said,

    January 21, 2006 at 1:47 pm

    Postmodernists just believe that scientists just make stuff up anyway – so why shouldn’t they join in – especially as there a few bucks to be made out of this rubbish. Released from the bounds of empirical evidence they are quite free to come up with a more entertaining strain of nonsense than the average working scientist – their success in gaining some specious credibility actually validates the process for them.

    The University of Warwick suppied the pomo Prof Steve Fuller – a witness for the Dover Board in the ‘Intelligent Design’ case in the USA. The judge slaughtered him for his view that there should be an ‘affirmative action’ program for ID.

    Perhaps there should be a warning ‘This study is asociated with an academic from the University of Warwick – as such it may be full of ‘made up stuff’ because philosophers there don’t believe in science.

    Or perhaps the University of Warwick should take a closer look at the activities of some of its ‘academics’.

  15. katie said,

    January 21, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    What really gets me is that these people give legit science a bad name with the general public and gets them all confused. With wankers like that around, and poor science reporting sometimes, it’s no wonder people sometimes think science is a crock.

  16. Karen said,

    January 21, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    Just thought I’d point out the NLP is not all that “new”. I remember getting a brief intro to it in an assertiveness-training course some twenty years ago, anyway. They’ve got books, websites, their own magazine, practitioners … They can cure anything in no time flat, to hear them talk about it. You know, X was so terrified of heights that she literally couldn’t drive across a bridge – after one session of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, she was totally cured of this phobia! Drives across bridges all the time! (Lest anyone wonder, I think NLP is mostly if not entirely hogwash.) Something like this – an author’s choice of vocabulary – seems right up their alley.

  17. ACH said,

    January 21, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    It also fuels the view of the general public that “scientists can’t agree” on certain areas of research (eg the MMR “debate” – ref any number of Ben’s previous columns.) Dr Kapferer and probably the rest of the “research team” knew that they were being grossly over-hyped, but apparently chose to go along with the scam, and when they are put on the spot chose to obfuscate and say “anyone should have known it was a joke”.

    And yes, Wire Trip, I absolutely agree. I was spammed only this week with the offer of :

    >

    Darn it, I could have got my PhD (and MBA) in 2 weeks without all that tedious work.

  18. RS said,

    January 21, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    “I am Australian as well, we have a word for that here, it’s: wanker.”

    Small world, that’s the word for it over here too.

    “It has been interesting to see the responses to our televsion program
    - which was always intended as a provocation of sorts, something which
    might set the cat amongst a few stuffy, puffed up pigeons!”

    Did I really just hear a grown man and TV producer use the excuse, ‘I was being ironic’? It’s Nathan Barley with a PhD.

  19. Zhou Fang said,

    January 21, 2006 at 7:38 pm

    Now, now, be nice Mr Dean Morrison. Fuller’s beliefs don’t reflect on that of the rest of Warwick’s academics. (Warwick’s maths institute e.g. is heavily focused on nonlinear dynamical studies, with a close connection to study of the evolutionary process.) Jack Cohen is fairly strongly on the side of the brain-endowed, for example.

    The real problem is with all the sociologists. The ones too drunk on the ideas of Kuhn, the whole ‘breaking free of orthodoxy’ paradigm, and the revolutionary-reactionary based worldview that they fail to notice that, well, there is such a thing as judging ideas by factual accuracy.

    (Me = student at warwick, btw)

  20. Chris said,

    January 21, 2006 at 11:18 pm

    And, of course, this whole thing has nothing to do with the fact that ITV has exclusive TV rights over Ms. Christie’s work. That’s just a total coincidence.

  21. pv said,

    January 22, 2006 at 12:19 am

    “And, of course, this whole thing has nothing to do with the fact that ITV has exclusive TV rights over Ms. Christie’s work. That’s just a total coincidence.”

    Lloyd Grossman, him of the strange accent and pronunciation , a long time ago accurately observed that the public’s idea of television being there to entertain or inform them was an illusion. Rather, it existed principally as a platform from which to sell them things.

  22. Zhou Fang said,

    January 22, 2006 at 12:36 am

    Well, commercial television, anyways. I like to delude myself that the BBC still has some hope.

  23. Scix said,

    January 22, 2006 at 3:56 am

    Say … what’s with all the PoMo bashing? I am not entirely familiar with all aspects of Postmodernism, but science-bashing has never been part of it that I’ve encountered.

    I am fully willing to believe wankers have been wankers while claiming to be postmodernists, however.

  24. oharar said,

    January 22, 2006 at 10:08 am

    Scix: I guess you haven’t heard about Alan Sokal. There’s an interesting article here:
    www.columbia.edu/cu/21stC/issue-2.3/grosjean.html
    and a Wiki entry here:
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

    I’d just like to disagree with Dean about Fuller: I don’t think he is a post-modernist. That’s not to say he isn’t nuts, it’s just a different pathology. For those who don’t know, Fuller came to general attention for appearing in the recent Pandas court case over intelligent design, where he advocated teaching ID not because it’s right, but because these wacky new ideas need a helping hand to get some scientific momentum. I think if it were unsuccessful after, say, 200 years he would be happy to say it had failed.

    Oh hang on, when did Paley publish ‘Natural Theology’?

    Bob

  25. wilksie said,

    January 22, 2006 at 11:07 am

    “Say … what’s with all the PoMo bashing? I am not entirely familiar with all aspects of Postmodernism, but science-bashing has never been part of it that I’ve encountered. ”

    Try this
    “in post-modernity people no longer tend to believe there is one authority on a topic. The ‘professional’ (doctor, lawyer, scientist, etc.) is no longer seen as having all the answers and always being right – an attitude that opens such types of knowledge to criticism and challenge.”

    Quoted from the Open University book ‘Perspectives on Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ ed Heller. Contains a fair bit of science bashing too!

  26. Loopy said,

    January 22, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    “I am, on the contrary, a serious social scientist.”

    now that’s ironic…

    “Christie was specifically compared with Conan Doyle”

    How on earth is this a meaningful comparison? Doyle’s last Sherlock Holmes novel was published in 1915 (The Valley of Fear), whereas, Christie’s last Poirot novel was published in 1975 (Curtain) and Danielsson comments on Christie’s use of common everyday language! Hmm… how strange that the average reader finds a book written 31 years ago more accessible than one written 91 years ago, well ‘No Sh@t, Sherlock!’

    I should think that the current popularity of Christie is more to do with the number of Miss Marple and Poirot adaptations on terrestrial TV. I could be wrong but when I was in the UK over the festive period there seemed to be at least one, or the other on everyday! It also presents us with a somewhat circular argument:

    Novel is popular, so adapted for TV
    TV prog is popular, so people buy the novel

  27. Tessa K said,

    January 22, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Post-modernists do indeed attack science. Try reading Gross and Levitt’s Higher Superstition. At the loonier end of PM, Newton’s Principia Mathematica was descibed as ‘a rape manual’.

    Neuro-linguistic programming my arse. Christie was a crap writer. Like many books where the plot is all, style is a casualty. Much horror fiction is appallingly written, for example. The da Vinci Code was a manual in bad writing. Making people want to know what happens next is a skill, for sure. But if you manage to hook people into the plot, they won’t notice the bad writing. As it happens, the Da Vinci Code had a pretty crap plot too.

  28. Rwdls Nwdls » Gwyddoniaeth Gwael said,

    January 22, 2006 at 3:56 pm

    [...] Ers sawl wythnos bellach, dwi wedi bod yn dilyn y golofn wych Bad Science yn y Guardian (diolch i Dad am dynnu fy sylw ato!). Ymgais y golofn bob wythnos yw i chwalu stori o pseudo-science sydd un ai yn y newyddion neu yn gred gyffredinol. Er enghraifft yr wythnos hon mae’r awdur, Ben Goldacre, yn chwalu’r honiad nonsensaidd “gwyddonol” a “adroddwyd” yn y Times fod llyfrau Agatha Christie – yn llythrennol (ho!) yn adictif! Yn y ddwy erthygl cyn hyn, mae o wedi bod yn ceisio mynd at wraidd y syniad fod cael gwifrau Hi-fi £300 yn mynd i wella safon eich sain (wrth gwrs, dyw hyn ddim wedi ennill llawer iawn o ffrindiau iddo ym myd y gîc hifi!). [...]

  29. PK said,

    January 22, 2006 at 6:19 pm

    That is a very deep and thought-provoking point you got there, Rwdls!

  30. MS said,

    January 22, 2006 at 7:54 pm

    “I understand good science as Albert Einstein
    understood it – as a largely un-systematic and opportunistic
    enterprise.”

    “Following Paul Feyerabend I would argue that science knows no ‘bare
    facts.’ And no such clearly defined process as a ’scientific method’.
    Even the definitions of “experiment”, “evidence” etc vary wildly.”

    These comments are hilarious. I think the man is quite possibly a complete idiot. I was sorry to discover that Macquarie University does exist, I wonder if they really gave him a PhD. The man clearly knows nothing about science.

  31. pv said,

    January 23, 2006 at 12:43 am

    Anyone here ever read Francis Wheen’s “How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World”? If not, I suggest finding a copy right away. It deals really very nicely with the Post-modernist and anti-science idots.
    These are narcissistic folk who lack any ability for critical thinking and who like the sound of their own voices. Even the expression “post-modern” is stupid. Everything was modern once upon a time. It follows that everything that comes next is post-modern. Therefore everything is post-modern. What a bunch of meaningless drivel. Philosophy for morons.

  32. vague said,

    January 23, 2006 at 4:13 am

    WireTrip: “Having spent a number of years slaving away to gain a PhD by pure hard, soul-destroying work myself, I find it increasingly annoying to see the title ‘Dr’ used by people”

    You’ll be appalled to find out that Dr. Doom isn’t a real doctor either!

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Doom

    Although I’m sure he’s done as much, if not more, soul destroying…

  33. Hanne said,

    January 23, 2006 at 10:35 am

    “literally unputdownable”!

    Tessa K, completely agree with you. As easy to put down on the coffee table as to misplace in the open fire… at least it’ll keep you warm that way!
    And, although I’ve noticed it is in the dictionary, ‘unputdownable’ sounds like a 6 year old wanting their word of the week in the latest edition of Chambers!

    *goes to pick up said Christie, throw it onto fire, and read the paper*

  34. social scientist said,

    January 23, 2006 at 10:40 am

    in slight defence of post-modernism it does have its uses. I am not going to defend the relativist approach to the natural sciences, but in the social sciences one can argue that all theories are value laden and therefore subject to the historic experiences of the proponent.

    This is a rejection of the positivism of academics (such as Karl Marx) who thought that society could be theorised to the extenct that we could predict the detirmined pattern it would follow in the future. which is just not possible (at least until there is complete scientific understanding to explain the seemingly irrationalality of human action)

    While i am all for interdisciplinarity, social and natural sciences should not mix and PoMo lies firmly in my camp

  35. Tessa K said,

    January 23, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    Post Modernists should really be called New Romantics as they have much in common with the anti-science pseudo-mystical stance of romantic poets like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Goethe.

    Broadly they distrust the empirical and celebrate the vital importance of the intuitive. They accuse science of blindness or stubborn refusal to see. Spiritual degredation and servility are the result of a scientific world. Their exaltation of intuitive Understanding above cerebral Reason foreshadows the celebration of holism and organicism by contemporary critics of science. (Roughly quoted from Higher Superstition, by Gross and Levitt).

    Maybe if they were forced to wear frilly shirts, they’d be less keen to sign up to their daft ideas.

    There are a few bits of PM that are OK but these are just bleedin obvious bits of common sense (the culture you are from informs your worldview, for example).

  36. Hanne said,

    January 23, 2006 at 12:15 pm

    May not be the right place to put it, but the Guardian have got this article in their online paper today:

    Trust chemicals, beware of nature

    From make-up to medicine, scientists warn that people are wrong to think natural must be best

    link to: www.guardian.co.uk/science/story/0,,1692222,00.html

    Go Scientists!

  37. Ray Girvan said,

    January 23, 2006 at 12:43 pm

    “This guy really didn’t get it at all!”

    Bollocks. I got it only too well. A promotional hagiography for one of the naffest authors of the 20th century, backed up by playing the science card.

    The BBC also obligingly regurgitated the press release without any kind of critical analysis: see “Scientists study Christie success” (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4539956.stm). You might be amused by the snotty e-mail I got from them when I told them so.

    ==quote==
    From: info@bbc.co.uk Thu, 5 Jan 2006

    Dear Mr Girvan

    Thank you for your e-mail regarding bbc.co.uk.

    I appreciate you felt that a report on the BBC news website about Agatha Christie was un-researched and lacked scientific proof. I note from previous contacts from you that you often believe this to be the case.

    Factual accuracy is the essence of news reporting and the BBC aspires to the very highest standards of journalism.

    The BBC editorial guidelines state that:

    “The BBC’s commitment to accuracy is a core editorial value and fundamental to our reputation. Our output must be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested and presented in clear, precise language. We should be honest and open about what we don’t know and avoid unfounded speculation.”

    In this case it is important to note that this article was reporting on a ‘neurolinguistic study’. We believe we make it clear that we are simply reporting findings made by the team undertaking the study.

    Nevertheless, we appreciate that you may feel differently and therefore, let me assure you that your complaint has been fully registered on our daily audience log. This internal document will be made available to the news and web team and Senior BBC Management.

    Once again thank you for taking the time to contact the BBC with your views.

    Regards
    (name snipped)
    ==end quote==

  38. Tony said,

    January 23, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    I suppose a comment on the use of literally as in ‘literally unputdownable’ is unnecessary? Glue would seem a more parsimonious explanation for that rather than any changes in central neurochemistry – if it is indeed true.

  39. Mathew said,

    January 23, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    “I note from previous contacts from you that you often believe this to be the case.”

    Translation:

    Oh god, you’re that pain in the arse who keeps bothering us with your constant criticism. I just can’t be bothered to deal with you anymore.

    Proper translation:

    You’re that scientist who keeps writing to us about our piss-poor coverage of science and asking the impossible by expecting us to respond to errors and misinformation concerning scientific matters about which we know little or nothing, being non-scientific arts types who are only doing this science stuff until we can get the arts job that we really want.

    Ray, next time you email them you should send in two emails, one from you and the other (worded differently of course) from ‘John Smith’ or whoever, just to see what sort of reply they each get. I’ll bet ‘Mr Smith’ gets a better reply than you do!

    “Nevertheless, we appreciate that you may feel differently”

    Patronising wankers.

  40. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 23, 2006 at 2:47 pm

    from the same bbc article:

    news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4539956.stm

    “Dr Kapferer said: “Our next step is to seek to replicate these experiments with other leading authors to discover whether their writings cause similar neurological activity among readers.””

    that’s such a clear claim from kapferer to their journalist about the research that they’ve done, that it’s hard to be sure where blame should lie: i mean, it may have been poor form not to check him out completely, and poor knowledge that means they didnt smell a rat straight away on the grounds that it sounded a bit far fetched, but when “project leader dr roland kapferer phd” gives you a straight quote like that as a journalist, i’m sure it’s hard to know what to do.

    the question of appropriate deportment when the dubiousness of the story is pointed out is another matter: ray girvan, your letter is truly priceless.

  41. The Protector said,

    January 23, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    In case the BBC change the article online and then claim it was obvious all along that it was tongue in cheek all long, here’s the whole article as it was:

    Last Updated: Sunday, 18 December 2005, 14:18 GMT
    Scientists study Christie success
    Agatha Christie
    More than two billion Agatha Christie books have been sold
    Novelist Agatha Christie used words that invoked a chemical response in readers and made her books “literally unputdownable”, scientists have said.

    A neurolinguistic study of more than 80 of her novels concluded that her phrases triggered a pleasure response.

    “Christie’s language patterns stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain,” Dr Roland Kapferer said.

    Her grandson Mathew Prichard told The Times: “It’s not really a mystery. She was simply a writer of great plots.”

    Enduring popularity

    The Agatha Project study was carried out by scientists from universities in London, Birmingham and Warwick for an ITV1 documentary.

    It involved loading Christie’s novels onto a computer and analysing her words, sentences and phrases.

    It aimed to explain the enduring popularity of the work of the late author, who created detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot and wrote novels such as Murder on the Orient Express.

    Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile
    Peter Ustinov played Christie’s character Hercule Poirot
    The team found that common phrases used by Christie acted as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.

    These phrases included “can you keep an eye on this”, “more or less”, “a day or two” and “something like that”.

    “The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing literally unputdownable,” Dr Kapferer said.

    Christie was also found to have used a very limited vocabulary.

    “It means that readers aren’t distracted and so they concentrate more on the clues and the plots,” said Dr Pernilla Danielsson of Birmingham University.

    They also found that Christie frequently used dashes to create “a faster-paced, unreflective narrative”.

    Christie is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the best-selling author of all time and attributed with selling two billion books worldwide.

    Dr Kapferer said: “Our next step is to seek to replicate these experiments with other leading authors to discover whether their writings cause similar neurological activity among readers.”

    The Agatha Christie Code will be on ITV1 on 27 December.

  42. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 23, 2006 at 3:20 pm

    Is it correct to use both “Dr.” and Ph.D.” beside the name? I’m wondering if that could be the “only joking” clue.

    It’s a bit of a maze, are we to conclude that analysis of the text did not take place? Of course the relationship between language, punctuation, and pace is elementary.

    In Christie dramas I’ve seen, or heard on radio, and in a few other murder mystery-ists, the mystery is maintained, perhaps necessarily, by lots of people having it in for the victim, so any of them could have done it. For me this tends to have the effect of depressing interest in the outcome; if everyone in the story is horrible anyway, then I hope I correctly attribute to Dorothy Heydt the Eight Deadly Words, “I don’t care what happens to these people”. Margery Allingham pulls it off for me, but often by using a different, similarly unfair device of having a cast of wild eccentrics who may be unpleasant but also interesting, yet not so in touch with the world that you can safely judge whether they’re a likely murderer. Modern works in the genre, I generally eschew, to sleep at night for one thing.

  43. janey said,

    January 23, 2006 at 3:42 pm

    Oh yes, the BBC changing articles. Reminds me of this story at www.badscience.net/?p=177 when the BBC article originally said:

    “Water may also be used in healing. Some people believe water is a powerful messenger that can hold electromagnetic traces as a type of ‘memory’. This principle is applied in homeopathy, where it’s believed that the more a substance is diluted the more potent it becomes. However, this theory remains controversial.

    “Implosion researchers have found that if water is put through a spiral its electrical field changes and it then appears to have a potent, restorative effect on cells. In one study, seedlings watered with spiralised water grew significantly faster, higher and stronger than those given ordinary water. Using this technique on drinking water is said to be beneficial for health, although the evidence is mainly anecdotal at this stage.”

    And then they changed it, after the Bad Science article tearing it to shreds, and then they complained to Ben saying:

    “The article on implosion on bbc.co.uk/health in its original form was never presented as scientific fact. It was based on work by the serious researcher Viktor Schauberger, but Jacqueline went to pains to include the caveats ‘Some people believe…’ and ‘….although the evidence is mainly anecdotal at this stage’ in order to make this absolutely clear.”

    Rewriting history with lam excuses seems to be a dominant theme here. “We were only joking” and “er it was full of caveats” being the traditional escape routes.

  44. Ray Girvan said,

    January 23, 2006 at 4:20 pm

    Robert Carnegie > “are we to conclude that analysis of the text did not take place?”

    As far as I can tell, it did take place. But we’re just talking about the field of computational linguistics: in this case, statistical study of text and its structure. Any claim that it leads directly to knowledge of what, physically, goes on inside the brain…

    “a clear pattern of recurring literary devices that stimulate higher than
    usual activity in the brain … These phrases act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction”

    …is completely outside its brief.

  45. BSM said,

    January 23, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    “In this case it is important to note that this article was reporting on a ‘neurolinguistic study’. We believe we make it clear that we are simply reporting findings made by the team undertaking the study”

    Except that that was not what was being reported since the neuroliguistic science bit seems never to have actually happened. They have been caught out basing their publication on an uncorroborated story.

    Doesn’t this whole thing read like a school science project having wildly extrapolated claims made for it and the author just trying to laugh it off as a joke when the pigeons duly come home to roost.

  46. Delster said,

    January 23, 2006 at 4:58 pm

    To be fair to the poor old BBC, their web news service normally states where they have taken the story from… which is often another news service. I seem to remember coming across a disclaimer on their news home page once to the effect that the stories are merely being passed along.

    anyway… to the point, possibly the reason that her works are popular is covered in the quote below….

    “The lack of variation in her words can mean that Christie is
    perceived to be a poor writer, however one could also say that she is
    limiting her vocabulary deliberately so that the reader concentrates
    on the clues and the plot. By focusing on using common words, the
    dialogue text became closer to actual conversational language. This is
    something she develops throughout her career and we can see in her
    later books that she was keen on fixed phrases like ‘more or less’ and
    ‘a day or two’ which are so common in spoken language.”

    To pin point it the important bits are “limiting her vocabulary”, “common words”, “conversational Language”

    These things will all make her work more accessable to people regardless of their reading abilities…. add that to the amount of people who like such fare as soap operas etc and you have a hefty target audience… who incidently like such formulaic work

    So large target audience plus incredibly large number of very similar “novels” being produced will almost inevitably result in an unforgivable number of them being sold

    personally i can’t tell the difference between the various TV adaptations of her novels when i’ve not been able to get out of watching them…. other than the colour of the big house on the set that is.

    Just don’t get me started on soaps…. you’ve been warned!

  47. ACH said,

    January 23, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    Perhaps in retrospect the Beeb are just pissed off that they were suckered into reporting on this and gave publicity to an ITV programme, thus assisitng the ratings for their rivals. If they’d had the sense to realise the press release was tosh, they could have just not reported on it at all.

  48. C. Augusto Valdés said,

    January 23, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    One of the expressions I dread the most from believers is: ‘Scientists have demonstrated’. I know that’s only a prelude to a note like the one you quote. That weasel phrase denotes lack of compromise, believing everything at face value. This reminds me of an old science fiction novel where a detective was tracking a drug only to find it was a language with the capability of inserting itself virally in the mind of anyone who listens.

    en.wikipedia.org/motif_of_harmful_sensation

    addictive novels belong to science fiction.

  49. Steve said,

    January 23, 2006 at 9:48 pm

    Social Vs Natural Sciences

    I think that some of the posters to this story are confusing aspects of social science and the humanities. The quantitative tradition is alive and well in academia (though admittedly more popular in some subjects rather than others), indeed some of the most recent important advances in applied statistics have recently come from the fields of education and human geography (multi-level regression models). Unlike Fang I do think that the social and natural sciences should work together, but the stereotypes are perpetuated by both natural and social scientists (and humanties graduates) is surely unhelpful.

  50. RaymondSpigot said,

    January 23, 2006 at 10:21 pm

    My name is Hercule Poirot, ze fameuse Belgian detectif. And I accuse YOU of being…

    ow you say?

    le wankeur.

  51. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 23, 2006 at 10:39 pm

    steve: i absolutely agree, i wish there was more counting in the world, in every field. even simple stuff like this is really interesting.

  52. Squander Two said,

    January 24, 2006 at 10:14 am

    I have to admit that I did find the press release hilarious. A quite brilliant parody. Bound to go over the heads of most of the public, though.

    But then the idiot screws it all up by claiming that it’s merely an exaggeration of a proper scientific study. Kapferer needed to decide whether he was doing a study or a parody of one. Mixing them is a bad idea, both because of the impression it gives the public and because it makes him look stupid when you realise that half the stuff you thought was brilliant parody, he actually believes.

  53. Michael P. said,

    January 24, 2006 at 10:28 am

    I know it’s a side-topic, but I’m really getting disheartened by the BBC’s quality. Or lack of. Ray, keep emailing them! In fact, respond to that comment and include a link to this discussion – ” Our output must be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested and presented in clear, precise language” – this is clearly bollocks. It took one email from Ben for the guy in charge to say “We made most of it up” Thoroughly tested, my arse!

  54. JohnHankinson said,

    January 24, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Steve:

    I guess the difference is what the quantative techniques are applied to! Advanced statistical techniques are all very well, but when you’re talking about disciplines that literally do U-turns on their ‘theories’ every 2 years (you know who you are) then something isn’t right.

    I think good science is good science irrespective. You get quack physicists and quack psychologists for example, but I still know which discipline I trust more.

    IMHO there are a lot more ‘hypotheses’ that never develop into ‘scientific theories’ in the social sciences and yet still get into the text books. Of course that’s the nature of dealing with incredibly complex systems like personalities, or populations or economies, but even so…

    As for the BBC – the Child of Our Times series with Winston really gets on my nerves. Watching bloody developmental psychologists state the obvious for an hour with Winston wiggling his moustache in the background has ironically dire effects on my psyche!

  55. Jim Kurth said,

    January 24, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    So this Roland character believes that “Speculation and guess work is part of all scientific practice.” But it is a small part if any part at all. in fact, it’s the “speculation and guess work” that most often gets the scientists that do get into trouble into that trouble. They confuse the order. You speculate. Design your experiment. Get data. Review. Report.
    You don’t get data and then speculate. And you don’t just speculate and call it science.

  56. Jo said,

    January 24, 2006 at 4:45 pm

    I think the ‘obvious’ joke must be the bit where they say that the results are revealed in
    a TV programme – rather than in a peer-reviewed journal etc. etc. ?

  57. John Scott said,

    January 25, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    Hmm… I don’t see the big deal here. The programme (which I did not see) seems to have been a tongue in cheek affair that does actually incolve some good sense. My following of the Bad Science report and correspondence highlights the following:

    The press release was probably not written by Roland Kapferer , so the Times were incorrect to directly quote him in the article about the brain chemistry stuff. Neither he nor the programme claimed it as scientific fact – so blame ITV for that one.

    The analysis of Christie’s books appears to have been done in a fairly academic way. Anybody like myself who has volunteered to take part in psychology experiments as a way to earn a spare fiver while at uni (Edinburgh – so a serious department) is well aware of the ridiculous nature of much of experimental linguistics, etc. The study in the show appears to be a genuine study, and in fact the observed redults seem pretty reasonable (like much of psychology, it comes down to “well, duh!”).

    So yes, maybe the joke wasn’t funny, and in fact fell flat on it’s arse, but it’s hardly a high crime. By the look of it the “good science meets bad reporting” is maybe more like “mediocre science meets mediocre tv production”. Put it this way, if the presss release hadn’t offered the conjecture of the hypnotists as “result”, then would this even have made a blip on the Bad Science radar? I think not. Hardly up there with “Dr” Gillian or pentawater…

  58. Yoginin (posting from somewhere else said,

    January 25, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    If anyone clicks the link given by hanne above

    ( www.guardian.co.uk/science/story/0,,1692222,00.html ) I have to completely put my foot down about the comments regarding henna.

    Black henna is NOT henna it is black hair dye which is applied to the skin as a paint. It has nothing to do with henna.

    Henna is from the plant Lawsonia Inermis. It contains Lawsone which binds with skin keratin and turns red/brown as it oxidises.

    Anyone saying they are selling black henna is putting concentrated black hair dye on your skin, and as you can expect there are allergic reactions to the paraphenyladiamine (might have spelt that slightly wrong). But natural henna causes no such reaction. However with natural henna, there are a number of rare complications related to Vitamin G6PD deficiency and some other rare conditions.

    The media consistently confuse natural henna tattoos with black henna tattoos and it makes me lose faith in the media (and I have to say a number of scinetific journals) that they refuse to acknowledge that ‘Natural Henna’ is natural and ‘black henna’ is not henna at all but a chemical dye, called black henna because of the fashion for tribal syle temporary tattoos.

    GRRR sorry a bit of a rant, but how can you say natural is bad and chemical is good, when it is the chemical hair dye that causes all the problems and the natural henna which doesn’t?

  59. Don Cox said,

    January 25, 2006 at 4:32 pm

    I think the point is that the people making the TV program didn’t care at all whether the story was good or bad science, or whether or not the experiments actually happened. They were producing entertainment on a scientific theme, as in X-files or any other fantasy.

    The aim is to keep the viewer watching until the adverts come on, not to educate or report on actual research.

    They would apply the same carelessness of fact to a program about history, music or any other topic.

    People who do not care whether what they say is true or not, but just say whatever has the desired effect on their hearers, are usually called compulsive liars, or “bullshitters”. Scientists have shown that 90% of people working in the media industry are of this type.

  60. Andrew Clegg said,

    January 25, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    This whole affair amuses me. I’m an NLP researcher as in Natural Language Processing (i.e. computational linguistics, encompassing the techniques they used to do the corpus-based analysis of the writing in this ‘study’).

    It always annoys people who work in the perfectly decent academic discipline of NLP when the same acronym pops up meaning something totally different in dubious self-help contexts.

    And here we have the first TV/newspaper reportage of natural language processing I can remember seeing for a long time, and what do we find bolted on to it? Some dubious conclusions courtesy of the *other* NLP.

    Bloody typical…

    Andrew.

  61. JohnHankinson said,

    January 25, 2006 at 5:47 pm

    Andrew – another of these ‘overloaded’ terms is Kinesiology.

    Roughly speaking, some people use it to mean the study of how movement of the body affects health, whereas a large number of pseudoscientific practitioners used a similarly named ‘applied kinesiology’ as a ridiculous technique to diagnose various ailments, allergies etc.

    Another word with a similar problem is ‘theory’!

  62. Gerry Hart said,

    January 26, 2006 at 10:18 am

    I watched the programme in question – unlike so many of you here – and I thought it
    was fantastic. Here was a truly original programme that tried to do something new and fresh. The academic team Dr. Kapferer put together was of a very high calibre.
    It is so easy to sink the boot, as everyone loves to do on this blog, but Dr. Kapferer is clearly open and transperent about what they were trying to achieve. I have read his letter to Ben many times. ITV should be applauded in doing something other than trashy reality television.

    Ben Goldacre is very much Queen of the Bitchy contingent. I suspect he is more interested in his own celebrity than anything else. Ben, why don’t you get out of the comfort zone of hiding behind your computer, stop writing in the supercilious way you do, and try and make an original television programme……..No. I thought you wouldn’t.

  63. janey said,

    January 26, 2006 at 10:31 am

    Gerry: that’s a bit of a strange response. Nobody here is writing about whether it was a good TV program, this whole blog and discussion is about about whether the media coverage was misleading. Did you see anything about brain chemistry in the TV show? No. Fin.

  64. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 26, 2006 at 10:41 am

    I thought it was a perfectly reasonable TV show, but that the press release, media coverage, and Kapferer’s response were all completely farcical, for the reasons carefully detailed above. I’m sorry you found it so hard to tell the difference, Gerry.

  65. tom p said,

    January 26, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    I’ll bet a pound to a penny that ‘Gerry’ works for a TV production company. Probably for the ones who put this programme out. He does, after all, imply that it’s easy to get a TV show commissioned and made and the only thing styopping Ben (or indeed, by implication, anyone else) from doing so is laziness and cowardice.

  66. Gerry Hart said,

    January 26, 2006 at 2:46 pm

    Sorry to disappoint Tom but I have no connection whatsover with television. I’m a commercial pilot if you really want to know (currently studying for my helicopter license). And an avid Agatha Christie fan. Tom is indicative of this site. You all appear so bitter and angry, looking for conspiracies around every corner.
    And even to call this blog “The Mystery of the Steaming Turd”…. charming.

    The simple point I was making in my previous missive was that it is quite difficult to bring new ideas to life; be it a film, a documentary, a painting, a book etc. Its too easy to be so viscious and critical. Lighten up….it was a very watchable, very enjoyable programme.

  67. superburger said,

    January 26, 2006 at 3:11 pm

    In response to Gerry (post 64 and 66).

    I agree that making a watchable and enoyable programmes is a tough job, but would you find, say, a history programme in which you were told that the Norman invasion of England took place in 1952? I’m sure you could make a thrilling programme, with Simon Schama (sp?) striding around talking about William the Conqueror coming over on a SeaFrance ferry, then driving to Hastings in a bull nosed Morris Minor, with a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. Great TV, but completley innacurate and an insult to anyone with knowledge or passion for history.

    So, when science is presented so badly, it does raise the hackles of anyone who cares about science.

    There is so much imaganitive, vital, research being done by scientists the world over. I’d love to see some of the fascinating ares of current research being presented to the public in an enjoyable, entertaining way. It would take, to paraphrase previous posts, a case of good science meeting good tv production values………

  68. Gerry Hart said,

    January 26, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    Superburger, you make a very good point. And I agree with you. But I don’t think
    the Agatha Code was so wildy inaccurate as would a programme telling us that the Norman Invasion took place in 1952.

    I watched the programme again just now (as it is causing quite a debate) as I have it on TiVo. The voice over from Joanna Lumley clearly makes the point that everything the academic team is presenting is
    no more than their thesis. They are not claiming it as fact; just what their analysis has
    discovered… Can’t this blog be a little more generous? Just a little?!…..

  69. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 26, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    geryy: i’m not quite clear why you’re so hung up on whether it was a good program. do you think that the many stories about brain chemistry and agatha christie were in any way justified from the content of the research? it’s pretty simple, and in fact, my very point is, it had nothing to do with the program. the program is a completely different matter. we’re talking about the press release, the media interviews, and the press coverage, and the fact that this bore little or no relationship to the research and the program.

  70. Mark C. said,

    January 26, 2006 at 4:42 pm

    I wish these reply posts wouldn’t be so hard on the social sciences, I would say economics is pretty useful…

  71. Ian Brooks said,

    January 27, 2006 at 1:34 am

    I wonder, perchance, if Gerry’s issue stems from one of the very facts that has been debated here. Poorly represented “science”, including eveything from this TV show, to talking heads claiming that “Scientists found that…” or “Scientists discover the gene for X” (a pet peeve), often leads to great confusion in the minds of the public about what is being debated in the first place. To many who read this page there are obvious connections (and obvious lack of connections) between such things as fMRI and a change in neurotransmitter release. However, the public don’t understand this, and in fact likely don’t even know what on earth is being said. Science-speak is a language that can take years to learn. We scientists need to communicate what we mean in a langauge that the laity can understand. As Nature and Science have been pushing recently, we really need to increase our outreach (via the media) to educate the public about what is really being done in the world of science. A career goal of mine actually….

    anyway…sorry if this is long winded, but as yer man Dr. Wanker said, us scientists are lazy, bigoted wasters, so I’m not really utterly exhausted and enjoying another lost evening spent in a lab slaving over a hot PCR machine….

  72. P.L.Hayes said,

    January 27, 2006 at 9:42 am

    “We scientists need to communicate what we mean in a langauge that the laity can understand.”

    Impossible. Science is irreducibly complex.

  73. raygirvan said,

    January 27, 2006 at 11:09 am

    “But I don’t think the Agatha Code was so wildy inaccurate as would a programme telling us that the Norman Invasion took place in 1952″.

    True. A closer analogy might be:

    I put out a press release about a forthcoming documentary, saying that a team of experts have used the latest scientific wreck-location techniques to finally solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. Newspapers and the BBC report accordingly.

    When the documentary screens, the first half involves a team of aeronautical engineers analysing in detail the specifications and aerodynamic characteristics of her Lockheed 10E Electra. The second half reports the views of clairvoyants who read the engineers’ report, then purport to pinpoint the precise location of her lost aircraft by channelling her spirit and dowsing over a map of the Pacific.

    “Finally,” says the Joanna Lumley voiceover, “The mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is solved”.

    Would you be happy with that scenario?

  74. ACH said,

    January 27, 2006 at 11:39 am

    Ray, it sounds like essential viewing! when are you pitching it to the programme commissioners?

    .

  75. Ken May said,

    January 27, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    “Could we have a name-and-shame page, maybe called “Experts” (including the quote marks), with a simple table listing these people? ”

    That will open up a whole can of worms, especially in Economics.

    How about the LSE IT Department for their work on ID card costing? Not a single member of the working party has had a job in commercial computing! And it shows.

  76. DarwinDocument said,

    January 27, 2006 at 11:06 pm

    A small personal lament,

    Both my parents are NLP practicioners and today I found my mum using a homeopathic remedy as a pain killer.

    My tounge is scarred, badly.

  77. Terry Hamblin said,

    January 30, 2006 at 7:35 pm

    Don’t you think it a little cruel allowing social scientists to betray themselves out of their own mouths? I used to sit on a scientific ethical committee with a social scientist as chairman. Baiting the chairman was all too easy; like hitting sixes off English slow bowlers.

  78. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 31, 2006 at 1:32 pm

    Amelia Earhart showed up in 1995 on [Star Trek Voyager] when it was revealed that she and a male friend were abducted by aliens.

  79. Hatter said,

    January 31, 2006 at 3:08 pm

    I could never read her books, the movies didn’t do much for me, but I really enjoyed the Poirot series. I suspect that David Suchet was a deciding factor.

  80. Hatter said,

    January 31, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Mark is economics useful?

    Ian, Ben has mentioned this before, but why is it acceptable to use art jargon on the arts pages and economics jargon in the finance pages, but have to ‘translate’ into dumbspeak for science pages.

    I think in all areas jargon should only be used where absolutely necessary, and things should be explained as simply as possible without compromising the integrity of the facts.

    In particular I’d like to smack people using business/economics jargon when there are actually real English words that say exactly what they’re saying with their jargon. Why the need to invent new and often ridiculous words? To make economics sound clever?

  81. Pierre said,

    January 31, 2006 at 9:36 pm

    Is “unputdownable” a commonly used term over there in the UK? Or am I missing another example of irony in a subject that already has its fill of the absurd.

    In other news, I have found evidence that the reason I eat a bowl of soup until it’s completely empty, in one sitting, is that contact with the soup spoon causes my brain to release serotonin and endorphins, and these neurological opiates result in the spoon being literally unputdownable.

    My next step is to seek to replicate these experiments with other eating utensils to discover whether their surfaces cause similar neurological activity among eaters.

  82. Amy G. Dala » links for 2006-02-01 said,

    February 1, 2006 at 2:20 pm

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  83. Bill Cook said,

    February 5, 2006 at 8:41 am

    After watching The Agatha Christie Code it struck me that all the programme makers had actually said was that “Agatha Christie sold a lot of books because people enjoyed reading them very much”, but dressed it in pseudo-science and New Age psychobabble to stretch it to an hour’s programming.

  84. Saifedean Ammous said,

    February 16, 2006 at 3:41 am

    Has it occured to these geniuses that Agatha Christie sold more books than anyone else because:

    1) She was a darn good writer
    2) Someone is bound to sell more books than everyone else

    Liverpool have won more League titles than everyone else not because they manage to hypnotise referees into calling decisions their way; someone is bound to achieve better than the others in any field…

  85. alif said,

    June 16, 2009 at 3:39 am

    Comment no. 30:
    > I was sorry to discover that Macquarie University does exist

    Yes, it does — its maths department is very highly regarded, and with good reason. Can’t say the same for its philosophy department, though.

    Comment no. 9:
    > “educated beyond the capacity for analytical thought”

    This was said by Peter Medawar, in a Mind review of Teilhard de Chardin’s `The Phenomenon of Man’:

    > … the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.

    We’ve all met them. Arseholes.

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  87. Pequenas anotações de viagens virtuais 10 - Uma Malla Pelo Mundo said,

    October 24, 2012 at 2:54 am

    [...] crime. Apesar do caráter científico do trabalho, não dá para negar que é um pequeno exemplo de ciência de caráter duvidoso. Não pela dama do crime, é claro, cuja única intenção ao escrever era… [...]

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