Party hard

July 21st, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, scare stories, very basic science | 8 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 21, 2005
The Guardian

· In our eagerness to focus on the supply side of pseudoscience – the dismal outpourings of flaky humanities graduates in the media and the bogus pseudoscience of people with products to sell – we’ve neglected an important area of study: the impact on the end market. Take this from reader Richard Neville, last weekend, who was simply trying to get a drink: “I was at the bar buying a round,” he begins. “‘Grapefruit and soda please.’ I said. The barman adopted a pained expression. ‘I should point out to you, sir, that this juice is 100% pure organic and, therefore, I don’t like to add chemicals – you see, I don’t know what’s in soda water.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I think it’s mostly water – which, of course, is a chemical plus a little bicarbonate of soda and added carbon dioxide.’ He didn’t look happy, while I just looked thirsty and persisted: ‘Well,’ he warned, ‘if you’ll take full responsibility …'”

· So it occurs to me: if I have a grandiose delusion, it is that we’re engaged in a useful project here, the study of the Public Misunderstanding of Science. And this is uncharted territory. So I’m asking for qualitative research; I’m asking for your help in a grand experiment, with the widest possible sampling frame, that is: you. Only you can help me to document the stupidity that’s out there.

· I’ll get the ball rolling. Last week, I was at a party and somebody starting telling me that the theories produced by science would be different if it had been done by women. I asked her whether she thought Newton’s three laws of motion might have turned out differently if he had been a woman, and she said yes, of course. I asked her how, exactly, she thought that Newton could single-handedly change the fact that acceleration of a body is proportional to the force acting on it, divided by its mass? And she walked off. Chalk up one to the nerds; and this is only the most stupid thing I’ve heard this week. Perhaps someone has tried to tell you that “science, you know, it’s kind of a belief system, like any other religion,” in a way that made you want to slap them particularly hard. Perhaps you did slap them. Perhaps they told you scientists say we’re all energy so nothing is real. Perhaps they told you that the stuff they believe is “outside of science”. Perhaps they told you that science wants to reduce their life to simple laws. Forget the media, we know we’ve lost there. I want to know: what’s the most stupid thing anyone has ever said to you about science at a party?

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8 Responses

  1. Louis said,

    September 2, 2005 at 10:15 am

    At a recent party (unfortunately it was a piss poor party, but this livened it up for me) I was recently told by a fresh faced secondary school biology teacher no less, that intelligent design creationism should be taught alongside evolutionary biology because we should “teach the controversy”. One expects these sorts of lunacy from Americans, but this was heer in good old Blighty.

    After a moment of spluttering and apology at losing my beer over my wife, I made enquires as to this charming person’s background. A BSc in Psychology and a PGCE were revealed as the scientific background. I then lept in with both boots and started to ask whether certain other pseudoscientific theories should be taught, from eugenics, extreme social Darwinism and various unpleasant racially and sexually motivated sociological ideas, to Intelligent Falling, the four elements and perpetual motion machines. I was answered with a resounding “no” for each (there is some hope).

    Of course I then over egged my pudding by attempting to create some understanding of the similarities between IDC and the aforementioned nonsenses. I was accused of persecution, being closed to “different ways of knowing”, and even better “perpetuating the phallocratic hegemony of white, western male science”.

    I smiled sweetly, and politely draw my wife away. Her sniggering was too much for me to cover.

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 2, 2005 at 12:52 pm

    i guess this is the kind of issue being addressed by the pastafarians:

  3. Clayton Graham said,

    September 9, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    This isn’t a party anecdote as such, but a few years ago I spent a particularly long car journey rebutting the statement “Technology is the most inefficient form of energy, and we should all run our cars on crystals”. In case it matters, my conversational partner was embarking on a career in television, and even now may be enjoying a career commissioning programmes for our edification.

  4. Harry Purser said,

    September 12, 2005 at 10:40 pm

    Again, not quite a party anecdote:

    About to embark on a recent picnic, and not having any cool-bags to hand, I set about rolling up cold bottles of white wine in thick woolen jumpers. A friend of mine (who has a double first in English from Cambridge) ridiculed my actions, asserting that the jumpers would “make the wine get really hot”.

    Where she works? The BBC.

  5. Stewart Peterson said,

    September 17, 2005 at 11:08 pm

    High school class anecdote:

    I asked a fairly obvious question to my lab group: Is cesium-137 (what we used in a previous experiment) or uranium more radioactive? The answer I got surprised me. Not only was I told to “stay away from both, they’re both dangerous,” but I was told a story about how it was such a travesty that they built nuclear power plants right on rivers and lakes when they could just build them in deserts far away from people and how this person is afraid to swim in Lake Michigan because of all the nuclear plants and all the people who died at Three Mile Island etc. Then comes the topper, from a second student:
    “Well, people used to think it was OK to put lead in paint.”
    [Forehead slap]

    Well, it’s a specific part of science, but it’s still one of the stupidest pseudoscientific things I’ve heard.

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