The unnatural nature of science

April 3rd, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, irrationality research | 39 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
April 4 2009

If there is one great joy to be derived from scanning the scientific literature over a week, it is the barrage of studies that challenge your beliefs and preconceptions, demonstrating the weakness of intuition: because if we knew all the answers to start with, there’d be no point in doing research.

image On an abstract level, there’s a good short report in the journal Cortex, where some researchers in Bologna demonstrate the spectacular hopelessness of memory. One morning in 1980, a bomb exploded in Bologna station: 85 people died, and the clock stopped ominously showing 10.25, the time of the explosion. This image became a famous symbol for the event, but the clock was repaired soon after, and worked perfectly for the next 16 years. When it broke again in 1996, it was decided to leave the clock showing 10.25 permanently, as a memorial. The researchers asked 180 people familiar with the station, or working there, with an average age of 55, about the clock: 173 knew it was stopped, and 160 said it always had been, ever since 1980. What’s more, 127 claimed they had always seen it stuck on 10.25, ever since the explosion, including – fairly excellently – all 21 railway employees. In a similar study published last year, 40% of 150 UK participants claimed to remember seeing closed circuit television footage of the moment of the explosion on the bus in Tavistock Square on July 7th 2005. No such footage exists.

But that’s pretty abstract. How about something practical from the Journal of the American Medical Association? Longstanding homeless people with severe alcohol problems often have many medical and psychiatric problems, it’s very difficult to initiate and maintain change in their lifestyles, and people worry – perhaps selfishly – that they cost a lot of money, both for healthcare and for criminal justice issues. Society’s response is often to incarcerate them, or offer hostel accommodation where alcohol is forbidden, perhaps unrealistically. Sometimes, perhaps, you may not be able to force someone to stop drinking.

So researchers took 95 homeless people with severe alcohol problems, put them into apartments where they could drink all the alcohol they wanted, and compared them against 39 “waiting list controls”, who experienced the pre-existing services as if there was no new initiative.

Adding up the financial burdens on the state, participants had overall costs of $4066 per person per month initially, which decreased to $1492 after 6 months and $958 after 12 months in housing. Oddly, the people in the project showed substantial declines in drinking despite there being no requirement even to reduce their drinking to remain housed, and although 9 died during the study, this is consistent with what you would expect from that group. Miracles, very sadly, are hard to come by.

This kind of research is at the interface of medicine and social policy: it’s an accident of history that a few people from a science and public health background got involved in the project and did a trial, to get evidence to see if the policy hunch was correct. Robust trials on social policy could happen routinely, if politicians weren’t scientifically ignorant and unhelpfully terrified of the possibility that they might have to state – with simple, constructive honesty: “well, we tried this idea, in all good faith, but it didn’t work so we’re dropping it now”.

Or lastly, at entirely the opposite end of the rigour spectrum, you could simply commission research to bolster your preconceptions, like the new survey on Auschwitz to promote the DVD release of a film called “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas”.  25% of pupils aged 11-16 did not know the purpose of Auschwitz, said the research. Only 37% knew the precise figure: 6 million were killed in the holocaust. There was an attack on children and schools for their ignorance, since the holocaust is on the National Curriculum.

Interestingly, the researchers were simply asking for specific details at the wrong time. The holocaust is indeed covered at Key Stage 3 of the National Curriculum during year 9, the school year in which children turn 14. If you ask questions of children aged 11 to 16, and they don’t all know all the specific details from this horrific period in recent history, which they are taught at age 14, then that is not a reflection of stupidity in children or their teachers: it is a reflection of stupidity in the researchers.

This incompetent non-research – another nonsense survey – was not published at all, and it will not be, and with very good reason, because it tells us nothing. But it is also the only story, from the three I have mentioned today, that has received mainstream media coverage: in the Mirror, the Telegraph and the Mail, no less. That is the news.

References:

References to papers in the links above, and as ever Gimpy was excellent on the Auschwitz survey. If you enjoy these ideas then The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert is cracking, and all about how the whole point of science is that it tests – and may therefore challenge – your assumptions about the world.


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39 Responses



  1. Dr Jim said,

    April 3, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday. Really. It is such a meaningless and trivial fact that it has been rightly shifted to the bottom of the neuronal stack. A hopelessly redundant memory.

    …and right next to whatever it was that I had for lunch yesterday, we will also find the memories of the many ‘pop’ research articles that informed me of pointless, unusable, unrepresentative data. Adding to the mental indigestion will be frivolous ‘pop’ facts such as ‘Girly Men are perfect partners, say Women’ and the mindless reams of ‘not-news’ that we’re all subjected to on a daily basis.

    Fluffy science as a space-filler; a service or a disservice?

  2. modus tollens said,

    April 4, 2009 at 12:42 am

    Ben, regarding the JAMA homelessness study, how much did the wait list control group (i.e. pre-existing services) cost per month?

  3. peterd102 said,

    April 4, 2009 at 1:09 am

    Its a cruel problem that research is mainly commisioned to try and support or confirm a hunch (be it positive or negative), and without a logical starting point we cannot decide what to study, yet the very act of trying to follow a hunch or make a point (as in the holocaust story) can distort the research being done.

  4. howfar said,

    April 4, 2009 at 1:26 am

    @3 It’s not really a problem if people are able to make the proper and necessary distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification.

    There may be a problem in that philosophy of science tends to neglect the context of discovery, usually regarding it as “not science”. The problem is that this is often the very thing that is viewed as “being science” by laypeople and the press. “Scientists have discovered” is a very common phrase in the reporting of science, even though discovery is only a limited part of what scientists do.

    You have to be able imagine wildly and test with rigour to find out things you don’t already know or believe.

  5. HolfordWatch said,

    April 4, 2009 at 2:35 am

    @modus tollens – Not a straightforward answer. Health care and public service use and costs before and after provision of housing for chronically homeless persons with severe alcohol problems:

    Housing First participants had total costs of $8,175,922 in the year prior to the study, or median costs of $4066 per person per month (interquartile range [IQR], $2067-$8264). Median monthly costs decreased to $1492 (IQR, $337-$5709) and $958 (IQR, $98-$3200) after 6 and 12 months in housing, respectively. Poisson generalized estimating equation regressions using propensity score adjustments showed total cost rate reduction of 53% for housed participants relative to wait-list controls (rate ratio, 0.47; 95% confidence interval, 0.25-0.88) over the first 6 months. Total cost offsets for Housing First participants relative to controls averaged $2449 per person per month after accounting for housing program costs. [Emphasis added.]

    Malcolm Gladwell gave some approximate costing for Million Dollar Murray (and a very good overview of various related projects).

    “We came up with three names that were some of our chronic inebriates
    in the downtown area, that got arrested the most often,” O’Bryan said.

    “We tracked those three individuals through just one of our two hospitals. One of the guys had been in jail previously, so he’d only been on the streets for six months. In those six months, he had accumulated a bill of a hundred thousand dollars—and that’s at the smaller of the two hospitals near downtown Reno. It’s pretty reasonable to assume that the other hospital had an even larger bill.

    Another individual came from Portland and had been in Reno for three months. In those three months, he had accumulated a bill for sixty-five thousand dollars. The third individual actually had some periods of being sober, and had accumulated a bill of fifty thousand.”

    The first of those people was Murray Barr, and Johns and O’Bryan realized that if you totted up all his hospital bills for the ten years that he had been on the streets—as well as substance-abuse-treatment costs, doctors’ fees, and other expenses—Murray Barr probably ran up a medical bill as large as anyone in the state of Nevada.

    “It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray,” O’Bryan said.

  6. physicus said,

    April 4, 2009 at 2:44 am

    Yes, re the clock, it’s odd what you notice and what you don’t. I always notice when the tachometer on my car goes through a significant milestone – like 10,000, 20,000 etc – the moment it happens. Obvious after the event perhaps, but part of the eye-brain conspiracy is clearing tracking status of this unimportant number all the time. Or is it just me?

  7. andrewh said,

    April 4, 2009 at 5:37 am

    Anderson and Schooler (1991) argue that human memory is adapted to needs probability. You remember what you need to. p400: “.. memories vary in how likely they are to be needed and the memory system tries to make available those memories that are most likely to be useful.”

    Anderson and Schooler offer a quantitative account of practice and retention data by assuming that memory is adapted to the structure of the task environment.

    Even though sentiment might direct us to respect a memorial, perhaps in the end, memory rationally reflects the low personal utility of information about terrorist attacks.

  8. gimpyblog said,

    April 4, 2009 at 6:49 am

    Regarding the Auschwitz survey, I covered this on my blog here.

    A representative of the firm that carried out the survey was kind enough to leave a couple of comments on my blog, I will let readers decide if the responses were adequate.

    I have also been trying to get a response from the groups that commissioned this poll, Miramax and London Jewish Cultural Centre, with no success.

  9. jackpt said,

    April 4, 2009 at 7:05 am

    On a very basic level I think part of the problem is that most people have no idea how memory works, and there’s social stigma attached to being wrong. Often when someone expresses scepticism about people’s recollection it’s considered an attack on their mental health, when it’s not, it’s just the assumption that they’re human.

    There was no publicly released CCTV footage of the Tavistock Square explosion (there is CCTV footage from within the reception of the BMA, IIRC stills were shown in court). But I don’t think it’s the same as the Bologna clock. On the day the BBC and others carried many shots such as the following (in a ad-hoc way as people sent them in, as their front-page showed).

    As did, IIRC, Sky News. BBC News is rebroadcast under the BBC World brand, and I’ve seen Sky news carried in lots of place. I think that if people were asked whether they saw CCTV footage of the explosion, it’d be very easy to conflate. Often we’re shown still CCTV footage in general reporting, so they probably confused the still shots with CCTV.

    I’m not sure it’s as good an example as the clock.

  10. Forest Pines said,

    April 4, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Many school pupils do cover Holocaust-related topics at an earlier age: it’s fairly common for Anne Frank’s Diary to be studied as part of Key Stage 2, in primary school. Not being a teacher, I don’t know the extent to which the purpose of the Franks’ persecution is explained.

  11. andrew1 said,

    April 4, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Nothing so new in the Bologna study. There are two traditions in the study of human memory – Ebbinghaus and Bartlett. A typical Ebbinghaus experiment would involve studying the decay curve of remembered lists of constantants or words, looking to see if items from the beginning/end of the list were remembered more easily and so forth. Fred Bartlett looked at memory in an emotional/social context – young men of the 1940’s would distort recollection of The War of the Ghosts, an abstract American Indian story according to their feelings about conscription into the army.
    The important point is that in 6 months time most people will just vaguely remember that kids no nothing of the hollocaust and that boozers get nice hotel accommodation!

    Do others think that forming social policy through (scientific) research is workable ?

  12. CDavis said,

    April 4, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    The data on people not knowing about the holocaust is certainly interesting, but there’s another figure I’d like to see: the percentage of people who think that the total number of people who died in WWII was six million.

    I see a growing trend for people to consider the concentration camps as the war’s primary casus belli, and the victims as its only casualties – or at least the highest death toll of any single group. The horrors visited upon them are a special case and should certainly be prominent, but I wonder how many are aware of the 21 million Russian dead. Or the millions of others who lost their lives – not least the German people, who can hardly be said to ‘deserve it’.

  13. SteveGJ said,

    April 4, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    It’s very well known that human memory is a volatile and malleable thing. I was furious with the BBC’s Law in Action programme completely undermined an important piece of research on the fallibility of personal evidence because the presenter (a lawyer) felt that his training and experience meant that he was perfectly able to establish the credibility of a witness’s evidence. The fact that this particular lawyer/presenter was perfectly willing to completely disregard what was a rigorous examination of the reliability of witness evidence tells me rather a lot.

    Rather tellingly barristers tend to delegate scientific analysis to “expert” witnesses rather than the analysis of the events in court. The argument often then becomes one of the credibility of opposing experts. Any half competent statistician would have seen the very obvious errors in the Sally Clark miscarriage of justice. It also took a lot of bravery and imported foreign expert to discredit the SCRO’s experts in the Shirley McKie case (and also exposed fundamental weaknesses in the methodology of fingerprint recognition). Many miscarriages have come from over-reliance on “experts” when, often, their own techniques are less than scientifically rigorous.

    I should also add that the medical fraternity are not above using dubious arguments to further their aims. The promotion of anti-smoking policies does, of course, have a strong justification on the basis of social and health benefits. However, I also remember that a huge emphasis was also made on the cost to the NHS of treating smoking-related illnesses. Now I’ve no doubt that this was indeed the case – but the fact is that everybody eventually dies of something. Dealing with the various degenerative diseases of old age costs a great deal of money, and it tends to go up as you get older. That’s not to mention other state-related costs as the population ages. Now I’ve no real figures on what the lifetime expenditure on state social and health costs are for smokers against non-smokers, and what the relevant issues are for tax receipts (or for that matter heavy drinkers, or the obese). But the figures oft-quoted by health campaigners often appear to me to be selective.

    The promotion of policies one grounds of social and health grounds should either be a thing worth doing on its own or not. The corralling of some very dubious financial figures to support and argument is something different again. It does, of course, mean that we have to deal with the consequences of such policies. For example, to what level can we allow health costs to rise as a proportion of national income? What evidence is there that spending X% produces better outcomes than Y% and by what means?

    The aging of the population (speaking as somebody not in the first flush of youth) is clearly having profound effects on social costs in its own right. I don’t see much attempt to measure this, although there are obvious effects on pension schemes to anybody in the private sector.

    Another example where social policy needs a proper, is in education. Too much of what goes into education policy are based on issues of rhetoric, pre-conceived ideas and dogma rather than outcome.

    For example, it appears to me that there is a case to be made that the further education promoted by many in government echoes the personal ambitions of many MPs, and not that of society or individuals’ benefit. There is plenty of ammunition for those who feel that the purpose of a university education has been devalued, or even misunderstood by current policies. Near me is a branch of the University of the Thames Valley which has, by any standards, an appalling record on drop-out rates and, by my standards, an equally bad one on populist bottom-feeding in the student market by promoting dubious subjects lacking in academic rigour. That very institution has come under some attack in these columns.

    The irony is that this very branch used to do an excellent job in a past incarnation when it wasn’t driven by political dogma and just got on with a job of equipping people with skills needed in their life. Of course, this will lead to accusations of elitism on my part (and I should add I’m a grammar school/council house kid from the 1960s). But I can’t help that feel the current approach is landing huge numbers of young people with heavy debts and not making them any better able to deal with the realities of life.

    But that’s maybe just my prejudice – where is the academic research, where is anything much more than political rhetoric? (there is the slight problem, that many of the academics which would do such research are prime architects of the current structure).

    To betray another prejudice, I tend to bracket most journalists and barristers as having a similar mindset, and both professions are heavily into politics and social policy. Quite simply I suspect that both tend to attract people who have already made up their minds on the points of principle and seek out evidence to support it. Of course, scientists would always take the opposite approach wouldn’t they…

  14. The Biologista said,

    April 4, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Good post reinforcing that reality that so few seem to want to face- that our intuition is largely useless even in everyday situations. Most scientists (we hope) get this. But policy makers sure don’t seem to.

    @2, Ben provided a link to the full paper but if you don’t have access, the abstract is here:

    jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/301/13/1349?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=homelessness+alcohol&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&resourcetype=HWCIT

  15. Mark P said,

    April 4, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    I trust no survey that has no way of ensuring that the participants try to answer honestly.

    If you give school kids a survey as a class they will generally try to get out of the way as quickly as possible. Thinking about their answers will be an optional extra. There needs to be some sort of reward — based on the number of correct answers — before you can be sure they will actually try.

    The alternative is to conduct it face to face, which makes it obvious if the participant is not trying.

  16. ossian said,

    April 5, 2009 at 1:41 am

    As an aside would a more accurate perspective on the camps not be derived by considering all peoples murdered there.

    The comparable figure of the number of gentiles exterminated (also an estimate) but often said to be 5 million is seldom added.

    Is 11 million people cruely murdered not more shocking still than the 6 million that are so frequently refered to.

    This figure should be considered when assessing the meaning of the camps unless one somehow views one people as racially superior to another.

  17. thom said,

    April 5, 2009 at 9:47 am

    The clock example is striking, but part of a well known phenomenon. Everyday objects like coins are known to be very poorly remembered (Nickerson & Adams, 1979). In the 1960s Morton showed memory for the letters on a telephone dial were poorly remembered. Mere exposure – even over a long period – doesn’t produce good memory. You need to change the way the material is attended to. Other everyday objects are better remembered – stamps are better remembered than coins for example (probably because you have to attend more closely to them to ascertain their value and orient them correctly on the envelope). I recently collected informal data from students on memory for the letters associated with numbers on a phone and they largely remembered them fairly well (mostly, it seems, because they have to know the link for texting when the keypad isn’t in view).

    Anderson & Schooler (1991) are partly right but they do say (in a 2000 book chapter I think) that the fact that intention to remember in and of itself doesn’t result in memory is a puzzle. I’d argue that it is less of a puzzle if you believe that memory isn’t a separate system from the rest of cognition – you can’t press a “save” button and store an event or piece of information. I’d argue memory is a natural by-product of processing information. I’d also clarify that needs probability is a Bayesian predictive probability of need. This is heavily driven by conditional probabilities determined by repetition and recency. The idea is that there is a cost to storage and retrieval so that the system is geared to ‘forget’ stuff with a low needs probability to make stuff that you are predicted to need (stuff you use a lot, recent stuff) more easily retrieved. AFAICR they don’t argue that there is a Bayesian calculation that terrorist attacks are unlikely and therefore I’m not likely to need this information again.

    The poster (jkpt) who mentioned that people have no idea how memory works is probably partly right. People vary in their meta-mnemonic skill. In this case:

    – people are likely to think that someone so salient and important to them at the time will be easier to recall (and therefore won’t engage in any behaviour that will hep them remember it)
    – I suspect people will be motivated to forget about the attack (particularly the people who work there everyday). Studies (e.g., by Roediger and McDermot) have suggested that being exposed everyday to memory cues of an event/item you want to get makes people very skilled at supressing the memories and apparently ‘forgetting’ it.

    By the way lots of researchers are influenced by both the Bartlett and Ebbinghaus traditions (e.g., Roediger among hundreds of others). Roediger and Bergman recently (1999) replicated Bartlett for the first time (after many failed replications by others). The original Bartlett results depeden on subtle characteristics of the method.

    Thom

  18. fontwell said,

    April 5, 2009 at 10:43 am

    I think I must be unusal. In the Auschwitz/ holocaust survey I was quite impressed that so many would know about one particular camp or the numbers involved and was somewhat annoyed by the use of the word “only” to herald the figures. I know when I was that age I wouldn’t have been able to tell you one thing about our marvelous behavior in the Boar War.

  19. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 5, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    The holocaust wasn’t only in concentration camps and, except by definition, wasn’t only the Jews. Wikipedia says “The total number of victims of Nazi genocidal policies, including Poles, Romani, Soviet POW, and the handicapped, is generally agreed to be between 9 and 11 million.”

  20. sergio said,

    April 5, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Dear Dr. Goldacre, we are delighted of your attention to our paper on the memories of the Bologna massacre; we are great fans of your column in the Guardian and web site. For the records though the study was not carried out by “researchers in Bologna” but by our Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at the University of Edinburgh, in collaboration with an Italian colleague from the University of Trento. Many thanks.
    Best wishes.
    Sergio Della Sala

  21. Ben Goldacre said,

    April 5, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Dr Della Sala

    then I have made a mistake, sorry about that, thanks for letting me know, I’ll forward this to the readers editor and I hope they will print a correction.

    Ben

  22. ChippendaleMupp said,

    April 5, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Dear Dr. Goldacre,

    You include this cheap swipe at politicians in this article: ‘Robust trials on social policy could happen routinely, if politicians weren’t scientifically ignorant and unhelpfully terrified of the possibility that they might have to state – with simple, constructive honesty: “well, we tried this idea, in all good faith, but it didn’t work so we’re dropping it now”.’

    But the problem is not the behaviour or scientific literacy of lay politicians, but as always the root of this evil is journalists. I genuinely believe that almost all politicians across the spectrum of colours enter politics selflessly to improve lives of people. They figure that if they made the decisions rather than someone else things might just be better.

    Unfortunately journalists create the environment where politicians must gain enough support to become elected. Those individuals that don’t survive in this environment fail Darwin’s selection criteria, and we are left with those that can survive in the journalists’ environment.

    It is journalists who believe that it is an unpalatable trait in a politician to try ideas and then drop them. That is why the ‘successful’ politicians do not have this trait.

  23. Filias Cupio said,

    April 6, 2009 at 4:22 am

    About the time I left high school, the school’s deputy principal also left, headed for bigger and brighter things. (He is a media personality now.) His first stop was some anti-drugs-in-school organization. A while after he got there, they published (with big splash in the new media) a claim that 2% of school students use cocaine. This was based on a survey. Nowhere did they (or, so far as I can remember, the news media) ask the obvious question: When surveyed on what drugs they use, what proportion of school students will tick every box just for the hell of it?

  24. peterd102 said,

    April 6, 2009 at 6:26 am

    Hmm Journalists and Politicians, probably the two least trusted groups of people in society, and are consistently at each others throats, yet mutually ‘profiteer’ off each other. Its a sad state of affairs that both of these peoples cause humanity much harm, yet have the potential to do an immense amount of good.

  25. chatsubo said,

    April 6, 2009 at 9:26 am

    “I genuinely believe that almost all politicians across the spectrum of colours enter politics selflessly to improve lives of people.”

    in a previous life, did a lot of work for the Labour Party and met a wide range of politicians from local to ministerial level.

    My totally unscientific estimate is that 10% of them enter politics for selfless reasons, 10% of them enter politics for personal gain, and the rest of them are somewhere in between.

    I think peterd102 makes an excellent point – the media and politicians are trapped in some sort of disfunctional mutually dependent but mutually destructive relationship, that does cause harm to society.

    Take the so called War on Drugs. Talk to any politician, police officer or public health official in private and they will happily concede that the War on Drugs is futile and current drug policies are not working. Talk to any journalist and they will say the same.

    But no public figure will come out and say the same in public because the media would crucify them for it.

    What can be done to break this cycle of hypocrisy is anyone’s guess.

  26. HolfordWatch said,

    April 6, 2009 at 11:20 am

    chatsubo wrote:

    I think peterd102 makes an excellent point – the media and politicians are trapped in some sort of disfunctional mutually dependent but mutually destructive relationship, that does cause harm to society.

    Interesting item in the NYT (Denial Makes the World Go Round) that discussed an experiment by Kim and Ferrin in which groups of business students assess the trustworthiness of a job applicant after learning that the person had committed an infraction at a previous job. Students watched the tape of a job interview during which the applicant was confronted with this issue and either denied or apologised for it.

    If the infraction was described as a mistake and the applicant apologized, viewers gave him the benefit of the doubt and said they would trust him with job responsibilities. But if the infraction was described as fraud and the person apologized, viewers’ trust evaporated — and even having evidence that he had been cleared of misconduct did not entirely restore that trust.

    “We concluded there is this skewed incentive system,” Dr. Kim said. “If you are guilty of an integrity-based violation and you apologize, that hurts you more than if you are dishonest and deny it.”

    The system is skewed precisely because the people we rely on and value are imperfect, like everyone else, and not nearly as moral or trustworthy as they expect others to be.

    The article then goes on to discuss other experiments that indicate good people can be dishonest up to the point where conscience kicks in and that a certain amount of denial can keep such issues below the radar.

    Kim remarks that it is not unusual for people to ““reframe the ethical violation as a competence violation”” because they are more socially acceptable or tolerable for most people (nothing to do with recent revelations about expenses’ claims).

    However, it is not just journalists who would capitalise on error for a story – rival politicians would as well (both within the same party and in others) so it becomes impractical to admit to error or having experimented with something that failed.

  27. calvin said,

    April 6, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    I don’t get this article. What have experiments in the social therapy of alcoholics got to do with false memory syndrome?

    I don’t see the relevance of the Auschwitz reference either. The kids involved didn’t have false memories about what they had been taught about Auschwitz. They had simply either forgotten details,or had not yet studied the subject.

  28. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 6, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    @22: you’re MP for where? From where I sit, it is others of the politican species who don’t respect a change of mind or of policy, if a previous idea isn’t supported by subsequent expert advice or if a trial project is less successful than hoped. The opposition call for some or all of the government to resign most weeks, it seems, often for the pettiest infringements, such as letting it be possible for a newspaper spy to photograph a piece of paper in their hand with a telephoto lens – remember that one?

    Journalists at most only envy, want to be players in the real game. Some were that before. Some go on to be. Newspaper owners, of course, have a lot more political power than the poor scribblers who usually write what they’re told or who were given the job because of their existing prejudices.

  29. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 6, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    @27: those were new scientific results that came out this week. Or didn’t come out, depending on how -you- get your news. (Well, you read it here this time.) That is the connection.

  30. calvin said,

    April 6, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    @29: Oh yes! It’s quite clear that they are not meant to be connected…blog hopping at work can dangerous to your information processing skills, or lack thereof.

  31. harryhuk said,

    April 7, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    What do you mean precisely by intuition?
    @14
    My understanding was that intuition could be backed by years of experience, and can be very useful if noticed – for example the senior firefighter who orders his team out of a burning building just before a backdraft blows up. He didn’t think consciously that that was what was about to happen – he just had a feeling. The feeling is backed up by all his years of experience.

    I suppose if memory is malleable, then so would intuition be, if it is based on memory. But it can still be very useful, even if it has a relatively weak signal sometimes.

  32. Jessicathejourno said,

    April 7, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Mmm, yes, intuition, dreadfully weak. But who wouldn’t intuit that people would remember a clock stopping at 10:25 at a moment of extreme distress and upset, and that memory would be so strong and so emotional that it would go beyond a memory into false but honest convictions? I’m not saying intuition isn’t over-rated by billions, but you’re hardly making an argument against it there.

    And writing things like “robust trials on social policy could happen routinely, if politicians weren’t scientifically ignorant and unhelpfully terrified of the possibility that they might have to state – with simple, constructive honesty: “well, we tried this idea, in all good faith, but it didn’t work so we’re dropping it now”” – is just this side of a lie.

    I don’t think it’s scientific ignorance stopping politicians from ‘robust social trials’, and I think what they’re terrified of in terms of ‘robust social trials’ is something a little more concrete then having to admit to a mistake in the short term.

    Scientific ignorance is dreadfully unhelpful, of course, but you’re dancing on the edge of historical illiteracy with those sorts of generalizations, which isn’t much more helpful.

  33. sideshowjim said,

    April 7, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    I know this is off-topic, but can’t find anywhere else to send reccomendations to. But please for the love of God, watch that “willies chocolate world” or whatever it’s called that showed on channel 4 on the 7th.

    Possibly the first time I’ve ever screamed “WHERE’S THE STANDARD DEVIATION??” in front of my flatmate. Anyway, watch it (specifically the section where they compare chocolate drink against “placebo” with how much exercise you can do), and fume.

  34. nel said,

    April 7, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    I’m not sure if you’re implying that trials don’t take place in social policy, or that they aren’t robust. I don’t know if they do tend to be robust to be honest (did once go to a meeting about a pilot study on social care which was just astonishingly bad but wont go into that) but there are plenty of pilot studies carried out. But really, positivism went out of fashion in the social sciences, several decades ago, for pretty good reasons. How could social policy possibly be separated from ideology? Seems a bit unrealistic to me.
    This is probably a rubbish example – not very exciting anyway – but there have been pilots of Individual Budgets in several local authorities recently. People are given money to the value of the social care they’re entitled to, and can buy in care from wherever they want. The studies concluded that people were able to have more control. Which is nice, but clearly level of autonomy isn’t the only outcome they could’ve focused on, and is clearly linked to ideology. Besides, I am absolutely sure that the local authority I work for will try to implement the policy on the cheap, and make a complete mess of it as a result. You can’t really standardise social policies across authorities.

  35. quark said,

    April 8, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    @ sideshowjim
    Glad you mentioned Willie. He’s completely bonkers, but I like the series (and good chocolate). My response to the “trial” they showed was exactly the same as yours. I wonder what a “placebo” chocolate drink tastes like…
    Apart from the fact that they didn’t tell us anything about the “placebo” and the complete lack of statistics, what irritated me is that the experiment was supposed to scientifically prove something. “Scientifically proven” is a term often used in the media (and by advertisers), but it’s not quite clear to me what it is supposed to mean as we’re usually only dealing with probabilities and not certainties. Do others also find “scientifically proven” irritating?

  36. heavens said,

    April 8, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Howfar, you exaggerate when you say ‘“Scientists have discovered” is a very common phrase in the reporting of science’. Sometimes they say “Researchers have discovered” instead. ;-)

    The problem with the study on homeless alcoholics isn’t that providing housing reduces healthcare costs for existing dual-diagnosis people (because it does): it’s that housing first sets up a new system of incentive that increases homeless in the short run and increases expenses in the long run.

    “NOTICE: All homeless drunks get a free home” creates an incentive to be the most expensive drunk in town, so that you’ll get a free apartment of your own, paid for by “the government”, instead of couch surfing at your sister’s place. Improving your life (say, getting a job that will let you earn enough money that you can rent a room of your own) is a major incentive for people to get off the sauce and become productive.

    We have previously demonstrated that if ‘living on the streets’ is what’s required to get the taxpayer to pay for your apartment, then there are a lot of people currently depending on private charity (read: friends and family) that would be willing to camp out on street corner (or to say that they are) for six months. Now, rather than looking pathetic on a street corner, all you have to do is show up drunk at the emergency room a few times a month. This shouldn’t be a real challenge for people in pursuit of a free home. Let’s see: I can work 40 hours a week for the rest of my life, or I can get falling-down drunk every Friday until they give me a home.

    Which one sounds easier to you?

    To give you a concrete example of how important private charity is: My own community claims to have about ten times as many homeless people as shelter spaces. However, the shelters are only full a few nights each year.

    So where do the other 90% sleep? Perhaps another 10% or so sleep in their cars or RVs, and maybe as many another 10% sleep outside no matter the weather. In a few cases, they’re determined never to go inside any building at all if possible.

    But perhaps two out of three of our “homeless” are in a stable living arrangement with a relative or a friend. I’ve spoken with a few, but two examples of this “political identity” or “technically homeless” situation stand out:

    One was a mother that lost her job (through no fault of her own) a few months before and had just finalized her divorce; she and her five-year-old daughter were living in one of Grandma’s (three) million-dollar houses while she looked for a new apartment and a new job. The social worker marked her down as being homeless. I wonder if the social worker ever wondered why that “poor homeless woman” drove a fairly new Mercedes (on permanent loan from Grandpa) to the appointment.

    Another was a man that had no job, and possibly no job skills. He was just kind of a bum: clean, shaven, polite, sober, well-spoken, but no work ethic and no interest in a job. He had been “homeless” for several years, if you didn’t count the fact that he was living, rent-free, in a little hut on his aunt’s property. He ate at the soup kitchen twice a day (free), and spent the change people gave him on a monthly bus pass and cheap paperback novels.

    A third example is one that I never met in person, but who was in the local newspaper dozens of time: A middle-aged man who built a campsite in the river floodplain (an environmental and safety nightmare) because he wanted to live in this (expensive) town instead of back home. Back home, you ask? Yes, it turns out that he had an easily affordable home in the inexpensive community that he’d lived in for decades, but he didn’t want to live there any longer. He declared that living wherever he wanted was a fundamental human right, and if the local taxpayers wouldn’t give free apartments to every single person that wanted to live here, then he’d live in a tent by the river — and call emergency services to bail him out every time it rained.

  37. treeofpain said,

    April 9, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    @36: I believe the whole point of research led social policy is that if the study is any good, a single or even a few individual cases that may be highlighted in the media, or ‘well known’ do not skew the actual policies that are carried through. It may make you feel bloody brilliant to know that the ‘old bum’ has to get a job (doing what? may I ask?) in order to have a simple thing like a roof over his head. BUT making you feel good is NOT THE CHEAPEST OPTION.
    ‘Oddly, the people in the project showed substantial declines in drinking despite there being no requirement even to reduce their drinking to remain housed,’ Really, wow, who’d have thought a stable environment in which to live might amelieorate alcoholism?

    ‘I can work 40 hours a week for the rest of my life, or I can get falling-down drunk every Friday until they give me a home. ‘
    Every Friday? I don’t know the clinical diagnosis, but I’d say you’re an alcoholic, doesn’t sound like you can stop. Don’t try and fake it though, as I’m sure there are diagnostic blood tests to find liver failure?
    Was the bloke on the flood plain a builder for one of the well-known big firms by any chance? They always try and squeeze those extra units, sorry houses in…
    Prevention is always (for a given value of always) cheaper than cure… stop the drinking, make better living conditions, and they may all want to get a job of some sort, just to fill the time. But even if they don’t ITS STILL CHEAPER, but of course, unless you WANT to give all your tax dollars (sorry pounds, I’ll keep pretending I think ur in the UK) to the pharms/medical system… rather than those awful do-gooding types (like cheap-house builders). T

  38. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 11, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    I have to say that although I’m no drinker, if unemployed alcoholics were given free bed, board and booze to stay out of trouble then I probably could force myself. Which would increase the cost to the community of providing the facility. Likewise it seems to be considered cost effective to spend far more on keeping thieves locked up than it costs individually to have them out and about nicking stuff. If there wasn’t the sanction then more stuff would be nicked.

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