Number crunching

August 5th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, mail | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 5, 2004
The Guardian

· Strap me to a rocket and print my home address at the bottom of the column: I’m clearly far too meek to make any sensible comment on animal experiments. Although I have found great joy in being lectured, by social commentators, on the appropriateness of human and animal models for research. “MRI scanners can tell you more about what’s going on in a human’s brain than you find out by opening up a marmoset’s head,” says Tony Banks MP, championing the exclusive use of a newly invented brain imaging technique – developed and validated in experiments on animals, no less – with low spatial and temporal resolution, over all other forms of experimental neuroscience.

· Of course, it’s difficult to explain to some people why empirical observation is important; where instead of taking the experience of one person as gospel, you take lots of experiences, from lots of different perspectives, and count them all up together. You can pick up some handy tips on collecting observational data in the “Four essential exercises to boost your psychic powers,” the Daily Mail offered this week. “If you have experienced even one of the following you probably have psychic ability: you decide on impulse to change your route to work only to discover later that there was an accident or heavy traffic on your customary route; you suddenly think of someone you haven’t heard from in years and the next day receive an email or call from them … ” Yes, that’s happened to me! Although if a miracle is a one in a million coincidence, and things and thoughts happen at a rate of about one a second, then by the calculator in my Casio watch I’m disappointed to experience a miracle less than once every three weeks.

· Which just goes to show the importance of carefully collecting large sample groups to establish causal links where possible. “Is creosote a potential killer?” asks the Daily Mail, divining good from evil, and still sifting slowly through every category of inanimate object in the world, to decide if they are either a miraculous cure or a scandalous cause for cancer. It must be one or the other. The matter is settled on its letters pages. “Yes” says the headline over a letter from a woman who once saw one person develop a rash from it. “No” says a letter written by someone whose parents used to paint chicken runs, and both lived to 85. Nullius in verba, as they say in the Royal Society: “on the word of no one”. Keep doing the statistics.

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