Saturday December 29 2007
Nobody listens to a word I say: I’ve been saying it for so long now that I think I’d be sorry if they did. Scaremongering season kicked off with the Panorama WiFi special. Among its many crimes against sense, this program featured “independent testing” by – oh, hang on – a campaigner against WiFi, who also sells his own brand of special protective equipment to those frightened about WiFi. The BBC have since upheld complaints. Immediately after the show was broadcast, the Independent were promoting elaborate quack devices to protect against WiFi: these will take off in 2008.
The media’s MMR hoax – as it will come to be known – was kept alive on the Observer’s front page; the Independent cried “suppressed cancer report shows GM link to potatoes” about a research paper which didn’t mention the word “cancer” (not once!); and the scattergun scaremongering of the Daily Mail peaked when they demanded the banning of a chemical which had, rather brilliantly, already been banned.
Combatants in the drug war continued to chip away at their own credibility. The Independent on Sunday repeatedly announced that cannabis is 25 times stronger than before (in fact average potency has doubled). That was followed with “cannabis doubles the risk of psychosis”. Then the MHRA pushed a scare about “nitrous oxide” claiming that “the ‘rush’ users experience is caused by starving the brain of oxygen” (it’s a drug which acts on the opioid and NMDA neuroreceptor systems).
There were the foolish stories in every paper imaginable: we were told that “girls prefer pink” for genetic reasons when the study showed no such thing; there was a bizarre Times piece about scientists trying to make sheep gay with horrific animal experiments, when they were doing no such thing; there were brain imaging experiments on voters which proved nothing at all; and a “team of Cambridge mathematicians” “proved” that Jessica Alba has the perfect wiggle, except there was no “team of Cambridge mathematicians”, and the data was rigged to produce yet another pointless non-science non-story to promote yet another pointless cosmetic product on the news pages.
The media fell over perpetual motion machines with delight, whether it was Steorn or Ecowatts: as long as it broke the laws of physics, and taught those smug scientists a lesson, the hacks were happy. And the papers went even wilder over the South African ex-cop with his magic quantum box: it could locate anyone, anywhere in the world – including Madeleine McCann – using its secret “matter orientation system”.
Under cover of this nonsense, we somehow managed to slip all kinds of geeky stuff into the paper, including the mystery of why more proper trials are not done on public policy,
how ad hominem is a bad idea in science since the Nazis spotted that cigarettes cause cancer and were ignored, and another on why everyone should have free and open public access to academic research papers, which is all the more important since the media cannot report science accurately. We reviewed psychology research into “cognitive illusions” which shows how intuition – valuable in some circumstances – is rubbish for making statistical inferences.
In the face of all this, the homeopaths’ melodramatic whining about some kind of special vendetta against them looks pretty weak. Of course this year marked the rebranding of Dr Gillian McKeith PhD as a pantomime figure rather than an academic expert, but the wider project of deliberately overcomplicating diet in order to create a new profession called “nutritionists” – and thus paradoxically disempower us all – went so far that by christmas, the media were cheerfully pushing chocolate and booze as health foods, on account of their antioxidant content.
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