Geek Prize

January 27th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, onanism | 23 Comments »

Hurrah. I have to say, this geek prize is v chuffing. And I get an engraved crystal paperweight which I intend to lose, re-find aged 72, and then look back on this happy moment with a tear of reminiscence from 2046.

2007 Award for statistical excellence in journalism

Guardian writer Ben Goldacre is the first winner of the Royal Statistical Society’s award for statistical excellence in journalism.

His piece, “When the facts get in the way of the story”, published on 1 April 2006 won favour from a panel of judges comprising senior and experienced statisticians, politicians and journalists, who awarded him first prize.

The second prize has gone to Times writer Matthew Parris for his piece “The truth about those little red lights: a tale of power and poppycock”, published on 22 July 2006.

Third prize has gone to Economist writer Paul Wallace for his piece, “Transatlantic rivals”, published on 6 May 2006.

Panel chair, Professor Sheila Bird said:

“The view of the judges was that Ben Goldacre had made good points combating bad reporting and grabbing the attention of the reader. Not only did he dig deeper to get the facts behind the story, he also managed to explain a number of statistical techniques all in one succinct and newsworthy piece.

“Matthew Parris had written a witty and clear piece, the judges said. It tackled a real example of how misreported statistical data can readily become an accepted ‘fact’.

“The judges felt that Paul Wallace had tackled an important area of international comparison in a succinct and well crafted piece with good statistical themes.

A fourth place commendation was also made to Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland for their piece on mortality rates in Wales for Radio 4’s More or Less programme on 22 June 2006; and a fifth place commendation to Philip Thornton, then of the Independent, for his piece “Why the real rate of inflation is twice what the official figures tell us”, published on 13 June 2006.

Sheila Bird added:

“The Royal Statistical Society instituted these awards to encourage excellence in journalists’ use of statistics to question, analyse and investigate the issues that affect society at large. This use enables citizens to hold decision makers in all sectors to account through accessible communication of complex information, highlighting of success and exposure of important missing information.

“The Society was greatly encouraged by the strength of journalism shown by all of the entrants in reporting on statistical issues. We look forward to opening the awards for 2008.”

The final judging panel comprised:

* Professor Sheila Bird Principal Statistician at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit and Vice-President of the Royal Statistical Society
* Professor Deborah Ashby Professor of Medical Statistics at Queen Mary, University of London
* Professor Paul Wiles Chief Scientific Advisor for the Home Office
* Dr Karen Dunnell National Statistician
* John Davidson press officer for the Medical Research Council and former journalist
* Richard Alldritt Chief Executive of the Statistics Commission
* Alex Salmond MP
* Charles Clarke MP
* Lord Tim Garden

In addition, Jamie Angus (BBC World Service), Julian Champkin (Editor, RSS Significance magazine), Professor Stephen Senn, Professor Gilbert Mackenzie and Professor Adrian Smith assisted with the first phase of judging.


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23 Responses



  1. Jut said,

    January 27, 2007 at 2:40 am

    congrats ben:) and isn’t it a little late to be blogging? go to bed man!

  2. DocOperon said,

    January 27, 2007 at 2:48 am

    Hearty congrats!

    Now, all you have to do to make serial dilutions of said crystal paperweight in appropriately filtered water, and then allow homepaths to drink – then, they will suddenly become critically self-aware!

    Or something.

    Congrats again!

  3. pseudomonas said,

    January 27, 2007 at 6:12 am

    Congratulations!

  4. muscleman said,

    January 27, 2007 at 8:27 am

    And heartiest Congrats from me too.

    The piece was a worthy winner too.

  5. JunkkMale said,

    January 27, 2007 at 8:58 am

    May I add my congratulations to what I am sure, will be a growing and deserved chorus.

    And also my thanks to you for a most approriate set of pieces to now retroactively add to my own blog today in response to some further ‘facts’ about the Stern Report and climate change, which may or may not make it to the Telegraph’s online pages (they do tend to ‘moderate’… oddly): junkk.blogspot.com/2007/01/fast-and-loose-play-on.html

    May I also take this opportunity to request any more qualifed (and I don’t just mean in terms of expertise, but also a commitment to objectivity or just plain accepting ‘we don’t know – ie: this site) who do think they can cast some helpful illumination on this whole issue, to be aware of all that swirls around and can obscure positive actions in this heated (warmed?) debate. And redirect those of us keen to do what’s best in as well informed a manner as possible.

  6. ACH said,

    January 27, 2007 at 9:36 am

    This is going to be a very “me too” comments thread, but congratulation from me too.

    Can’t understand why Durham Education Dept weren’t short listed though…… :)

  7. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 27, 2007 at 9:55 am

    The piece about appliances on standby is pretty good. Sometimes Matthew Parris really annoys me…

    Do you think that awarding fifth place is perhaps being too judicious?

  8. Andrew Clegg said,

    January 27, 2007 at 10:13 am

    First winner huh! That means you can tell yourself that they inaugurated it just for you :-)

    Andrew.

  9. Andrew Clegg said,

    January 27, 2007 at 10:22 am

    PS I love the cynical quote at the end of that Matthew Parris piece.

    “But why fret? Journalists and politicians bring you the essential not the literal truth.”

    Bleak but (essentially) true…

    Andrew.

  10. ToeKnee said,

    January 27, 2007 at 11:00 am

    Well done Ben. However, in the paperless office of the future in which we now all work (yeah, right) is there any need for such a paper weight?

    Do any of the winners have formal training in statistics? Genuine question as I can’t be arsed to do the research, i.e. type 6 words into Google and click around a bit together with some light skim reading – frankly I’m suprised I can muster the energy to type this I’m so effing lazy at the weekend.

    I only ask as I have always thought being a pure Mathematician or a Statistian to be a bit like learning a language but never visiting the country. You end up with a fabulous set of skills but without a practical domain in which to use them. Don’t get me wrong I’m not one of those Mathematician bashing physicist but most of the Mathematicians and Statisticians whom I know have also spent many years specialising in some other domain.

    Discuss.

  11. cribbins said,

    January 27, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    Well earned, son.

  12. speakeasy said,

    January 27, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Well deserved. As a reader of your blog and Guardian pieces, I congratulate you.

    (P.S. Have you ever looked at how scientific findings can be distorted by the lack of appropriate punctuation? I was left quite breathless after reading one of the comments here).

  13. cribbins said,

    January 27, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    ToeKnee – I’m not sure how to take your comment. Some of the research mathematicians and statisticians I’ve known have worked on problems arising from areas such as finance, cancer research, brain imaging analysis, hydrodynamics, food processing, coal-fired power stations etc. Yet they remain mathematicians and statisticians. In fact, at least three of those working in fluid dynamics would call themselves pure mathematicians. The difference is not in the domain in which they work, but in the kind of questions they tackle. Research cannot be classed as pure or applied based purely on that; it depends on the individual’s research motivation.

  14. evidencebasedeating said,

    January 27, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Bravo, Ben!

    So now you can add serious ‘fcuk-off statistician Ninja’ to your academic and medical black belt Ninja status. And all achieved with the apparent absence of sleep, Vitamin C, orthomolecular medicine, tinctures of homeopathic nonsense, or fish oils!

    Must be great to find your appreciative audience extends wider than your badscience groupies!

  15. Suw said,

    January 27, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Congratulations! An award well deserved!

    Btw, what’s all this “You must bee logged in to post a comment”? I must be a bee to log in?

  16. Will said,

    January 27, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    Thanks for winning this, Ben. In my organisation, I am increasingly using your work to educate my colleagues on the intricacies of statistics and science. This award gives you (and me) the kind of status in the eyes of my company directors to really be taken seriously as a worthwhile training aid. Can’t wait for the book!

  17. pv said,

    January 27, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    Very many congrats. Made all the more impressive by the quality of the competition.

  18. ToeKnee said,

    January 27, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Cribbins. Oh absolutely I agree. My comment was not meant to sound negatively more puzzled I suppose. My experience has been similar knowing Mathematicians and Statisticians who work in a wide variety of areas and precisely by virtue of the fact that their base discipline is fundamental to the work in these areas. However, I have repeatedly found that when they excel in an area it is because they have effectively re-trained in another field – albeit with a sound basis in the mathematical or statistical underpinnings. Equally though I have meant numerous mathematicians and to a lesser extent statisticians who, in my opinion, have failed to impact in an area or even had a negative impact in an area because they didn’t really grasp the nature of the problem, understand the reality of the data or consider the practicalities of implementing the solutions they suggest. Often surrogating these with over complex mathematics. Interesting you mention the example of medical imaging as this is my field and is often rife with both examples. Just look at fMRI for instance (although most of the damage in this field is frankly caused by Psychiatrists!)

    Please don’t take this too negatively. Multidisciplinary teams are the only way to conduct modern research and I value Mathematicians as much as any other field. I just think they have to be good ones and the good ones are more than mathematicians.

  19. cribbins said,

    January 27, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    ToeKnee –

    I’d concede entirely that mathematicians concerned with direct applications benefit from being as interested in (or knowledgeable about) the applications as they are in the mathematics involved. And yes, multidisciplinary teams are excellent for dealing with some areas (one of my old professors, CJ Budd, has built a stunning reputation on work that’s mainly been in collaboration with others). But I’m also aware that the UK’s leading expert on the theory of Stokes waves, for example, privately claims to know nothing of fluid mechanics; yet, because nonlinear analysis is so closely related to applications, his ‘purity’ hasn’t precluded his work impacting on those interested in doing something useful. Similarly, one of his colleagues, a chap who who’d faint at the sight of computational mathematics, has produced work that’s been of tremendous use to ‘yer actual’ meteorologists. And I’d say the same kind of story holds for some of of pure probabilists I’m familiar with. And so on.

    Sometimes it’s fine to live in an ivory tower.

    The magic is in choosing the *right* ivory tower…

  20. matthewoconnor said,

    January 27, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    Congratulations indeed Dr. Goldacre. Did they give you a prize, or merely promise you one…?

    www.flickr.com/photos/hadenoak/353126625/

  21. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 28, 2007 at 1:29 am

    Faraday was the visionary, Maxwell the mathematician.

    Me – pure maths, now a computer programmer.

  22. Universal Antidote said,

    January 29, 2007 at 12:45 am

    It is rather a nice bowl. I was going to suggest you fill it with antioxidant supplements or some such.

    Seriously though – congratulations! Well-deserved honor.

  23. tg said,

    January 29, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Well done, Ben. So for the rest of us who are not quite up to speed on statistics, should we all be enrolling on the OU’s ten-pointer (ie, starter) course, SMK184, “Chance, risk and health” in order to follow you in future?

    Course blurb: www3.open.ac.uk/courses/bin/p12.dll?C01SMK184

    It is apparently based in large part on a book by one Professor Stephen Senn. This book has no reviews on Amazon but the author maintains an errata page for it, which is always promising.

    (Disclaimer: I am an OU student, but I know nothing about this course. I am almost tempted to take it, but argh, so many courses, so little time.)