Saturday July 12, 2008
You will remember, two weeks ago now, we saw the Sunday Express claiming on its front page that an impressive government adviser called Dr Roger Coghill had performed a research study demonstrating that the Bridgend suicide cases all lived closer to a mobile phone mast than average. When I contacted Coghill it turned out he wasn’t really a government adviser, he had previously claimed that Aids was caused by power cables, he said the Express had made a mistake in calling him a doctor, he had lost the data, and he couldn’t even explain what he meant by “average”.
You will be very pleased to hear that Dr Coghill has now found the data.This is a matter of great public health significance, as suicide is the second most common cause of death in men aged 15 to 44, and mobile phone use is extremely prevalent. Sadly Dr Coghill still does not wish to tell me what figures he collected, what analysis he did on them, what “average” he compared them with, what the results were, and what interpretation he makes from these results. This baffles me. He claims online that he has offered to let me inspect his data but that I declined. This baffles me too, because he also explains – in a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about me harassing him – that he will not give me his data, as he considers it “sensitive”.
I’ve no interest in a squabble. Please, Dr Coghill, these are important issues you have raised, I would like to take you seriously: you need not hand over the raw data, but it would be a kindness to those affected by your front page revelations if you could take the time to answer my simple, clear questions.
Without data, we have only a bloke. Week in, week out, we see apparently scientific claims being made in the newspapers with great confidence, as if they were based on evidence, when in reality they are based on nothing more than authority, and often from one man. This is because science is communicated to the public by journalists, who sometimes have no understanding of what it means for there to be evidence for an assertion. They are impressed by enthusiasm, long words, by a PhD, a white coat, or a medical qualification.
What if this is taken to an extreme? In 1973 a group of academics noticed that student ratings of teachers often seemed to depend more on personality than educational content. They wanted to find out how far this effect could be stretched: what if you had an impressive, charismatic and witty lecturer, who knew nothing at all about the subject on which they were lecturing? Could plausibility alone make an audience feel satisfied that they had learned something, even if the information delivered was deliberately inconsistent, irrelevant, and even meaningless?
They hired a large, affable gentleman who “looked distinguished and sounded authoritative”. They called him “Dr Myron L Fox” and he was given a long, impressive, and fictitious CV. Dr Fox was an authority on the application of mathematics to human behaviour.
They slipped Dr Fox on to the programme at an academic conference on medical education. His audience was made up of doctors, healthcare workers, and academics. The title of his lecture was Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education. Dr Fox filled his lecture and his question and answer session with double talk, jargon, dubious neologisms, non sequiturs, and mutually contradictory statements. This was interspersed with elaborate diversions into parenthetical humour and “meaningless references to unrelated topics”. It’s the kind of education you pay good money for in the UK.
The lecture went down well. At the end, a questionnaire was distributed and every person in the audience gave significantly more favourable than unfavourable feedback. The comments were gushing, and yet thoughtful: “excellent presentation, enjoyed listening”, “good flow, seems enthusiastic”, and “too intellectual a presentation, my orientation is more pragmatic”.
The researchers repeated the performance. Time and again they got the same result: the third group consisted of 33 people on a graduate-level university educational philosophy course. Twenty-one had postgraduate qualifications. They loved it: “extremely articulate”, “good analysis of subject that has been personally studied before”, “articulate”, and “knowledgable”, they said.
Nobody can check everything, we’re all interdependent for information, and sometimes you might find yourself in a soulful, detached state, wondering whether everything you think you know is grounded in nothing more than a string of half-remembered assertions from people like Dr Fox.
THE DOCTOR FOX LECTURE: A PARADIGM OF EDUCATIONAL SEDUCTION
Donald H. Naftulin, M.D., John E. Ware, Jr., and Frank A. Donnelly
Journal of Medical Education, vol. 48, July 1973, p. 630-635