Debate with Lord Drayson on rubbish science coverage live streamed @ 7pm

September 16th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, politics | 23 Comments »

The debate with Lord Drayson (who assures me he will attend in full “lord” fancy dress) will be streamed live from 7pm at: should be good fun, and I hope something productive will come of it. There is also a twitter tag, #scidebate, which you can contribute to, and which will hopefully be copied onto a screen in the RI lecture theatre, so that in 2056 you can boast to your grandchildren that you once announced “I love badger knob” in the very same lecture theatre that once hosted Faraday, HG Wells, and so many others. You might also need to tweet @timeshighered if you want to get through, according to this website. Try both.

I’ll bung my slides up here later if I get a chance. There’s also a twitter tag for people swapping tickets, #draysonticks, and there’ll be some no-shows on the door I imagine, especially since all the science journalists and PR people are going to go to the screening of that new film Creation in Kensington instead. If you’re a mate and I’ve forgotten you, or a science blogger, email me and I’ll bung your name down, I’ve got a couple of tickets spare. There’ll be pub after (and presumably a drink in the costly pink RI bar), maybe in that pub on that road. You know, that pub.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

23 Responses

  1. jonathon tomlinson said,

    September 16, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Hi Ben,
    Good start this on Today morning, shame about the interuptions. You’ve learned the lesson about getting the main point accross in one breath right at the begining.
    The BBC remains odsessed with ‘debates’ e.g. climate change debate, MMR debate, Creationism/evolution debate. Too often a debate suggests that there are two balanced, irreconcilable theories and it gives a bad idea kudos.
    It gets worse, “Is killing sometimes cool?” “Is fascism a good idea? “Are Tories compassionate?”

    Not so tonight’s debate though, Best of luck

  2. PSN said,

    September 16, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    The link doesnt work (at least in my browser) when clicked. Maybe this one is better.

  3. AntibodyBoy said,

    September 16, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    An issue I hope comes up in tonight’s debate, as it relates to the govt’s lumping of “science” in with “wealth creation” – I notice Lord Drayson tweets he’s just been talking about this!

    There seems to be an increasingly worrying meddling in research council funding, to improve the ‘impact’, ‘translation’ and ‘economic benefit’ of UK academic science. Like many scientists, I strongly believe that this poses a serious risk of marginalising basic science and that poor science reporting in the media is largely responsible.

    Many science stories in major newspapers seem to be specifically written to stir up an anti-intellectual attitude toward basic science; often projects with no obvious material benefit to the public is presented as ‘risible boffinry’ at best, or a shocking waste of public money at worst.
    In response to this public feeling, MP’s attitudes appear to be that academic funding should be more tightly regulated in order to improve productivity, which they define in purely commercial terms.

  4. Drew Batchelor said,

    September 16, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Great stuff Lord Goldacre! You totally rocked. Passionate, fascinating, articulate, brilliant!
    Props to Drayson, for doing great stuff for UK science in general and big applause for the audience and the Twitterers for asking such intelligent and challenging questions.

  5. ColonelFazackerley said,

    September 16, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    If you just missed it…
    “Please note that the debate will also be available here to view on demand from 17 September 2009 at 4pm GMT.”

  6. AntibodyBoy said,

    September 16, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    I noticed that both Ben & Lord Drayson both agreed that scientists should be encouraged to raise the profile of their work – someone in the audience actually suggested more scientists should be talking to the media as well.

    But is this really a good idea? Do we really want to have a culture of compulsory ‘showbiz’ in science. Drayson even went as far as to say, repeatedly, that he is fine with ‘sensationalising’ work. Surely history has repeatedly demonstrated that the bulk of scientific works comes from unsexy research, and leaving scientists alone to do it. Is it likely that there will be a long-term erosion of public interest and belief in science will if everything they read and see is ‘sexed up’.

    Actively ushering in a system where how much you have tarted yourself all over the newspapers counts towards getting your funding renewed (all research council grant proposals now include such sections).

  7. CoralBloom said,

    September 16, 2009 at 9:55 pm


    Eric Weischaus came out to deliver a lecture to NIH grants administrators on the very same topic more than ten years ago.

    His point was that his Nobel-winning work would not be funded anywhere now. Everyone (those of experience and great wisdom) told Weischaus and Nüsslein-Volhard,they were crazy, and nothing would come of the massive effort. Look at the growth in active research in developmental biology now!

  8. adamcreen said,

    September 16, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    photos here:
    sorry Ben, I know you hate me taking photos of you!

  9. Pro-reason said,

    September 17, 2009 at 1:18 am

    How comes he gets his title (‘Lord’), but you don’t get yours (‘Dr’)? Bias!

  10. CoralBloom said,

    September 17, 2009 at 1:50 am


    Finally got around to listening to you on the radio programmes you participated in before the debate.

    Well done to you. And yes, we geeks are ignored by the media. I’m looking forward to the webcast tomorrow.

    Good point. Drayson sounded just too lovely and woolly on the radio, just desperate to ignore the problems. I don’t think he really understands science abuse and the consequences.

    I look forward to an increase in understanding of science throughout the UK population. Treatments that are not evidence based will just fall off the shop shelves into the abyss very soon! Thought for the day will be replaced with Science For The Day…

  11. AntibodyBoy said,

    September 17, 2009 at 10:41 am

    @CoralBloom Yes, but there is a striking bias towards medical research at the expense of other disciplines in the last ten years. University research here & in the US is being increasingly relied upon to feed directly into industrial drug development; everyone is getting very concerned that novel drugs are becoming increasingly difficult to produce, and academia is being roped in to pick up the slack, on the cheap. You can see such commercialisation of academia at work in the downsizing or closing of unprofitable university departments.

    How can we realistically expect short-term allocation of resources (industry), i.e. “pull the plug if there’s no results after two months”, and short-term research contracts (academia) to lead to the same level of quality research and headway into unbelievably complex problems, such as manipulating the immune system?
    One or two companies are now adopting the old academic model of long-term funding & leave to simmer; a few people from my department have jumped ship to them precisely for this reason.

    You have to ask yourself why this sudden ‘public accountability’ for science spending (as if you must keep an eye on scientists or they’ll p**s away money enjoying themselves) doesn’t seem to apply to, say, the sports or arts councils? What happened to universities as places of knowledge-generation and learning?

    This is rather off topic though; my point is that forcing all scientists to ‘engage with the public’ (i.e. big up your work, or else become less competitive for funding) through such dubious mouthpieces as newspaper and tv journalists (think Ida) – in other words: “go for it, sensenationalise away, young postdoc!”, as Lord Drayson thinks we should be doing – will ultimately lead to the same place as bad science reportage: no will believe the claims of scientists and, like today, you have to go to blogs to get a half-decent explantion, which a lot of people won’t bother to do. And you’ll be wasting a lot of research-hours to attend media days, etc. Everyone seems unaware that, perhaps paradoxically, good scientists can (and often are, in my experience), irredeemably poor science communicators. In short: science has a lot of nerds, why not let them do what they do best, and stop forcing everyone to worry about self-promotion.

  12. FairySmall said,

    September 17, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    @AntibodyBoy – I don’t think it’s about ‘forcing’ all scientists to engage with the public. It’s more about rewarding those who do (and presumably who do it well – it would be counterproductive to reward bad engagement). At the moment too many universities still have the attitude that if you do public engagement/outreach/media work it’s because you are a rubbish researcher. And frankly, that’s crap.

    But I agree with Ben’s point at the debate that it should be for all kinds of engagement, not just mainstream media.

  13. mb said,

    September 17, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    I agree with AntibodyBoy. I’d like to add that there is good empirical evidence that we should not equate increased wealth in a country with increased wellbeing, although this may be counterintuitive. Maybe this is why polticians seem unaware of it, they can’t afford to say anything that does not immediately resonate with the public.
    But it is really sad, they use the rhetoric of wanting results from public money but they push academia to work for commercial results, some of which may be exactly against the interest of the public. Even pushing academics to sex up their results is against the public interest in my opinion.

  14. AntibodyBoy said,

    September 17, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    @FairySmall Well, forced in the sense that those who don’t are harming their chances of continued funding (albeit in a fairly small way, at this stage, I admit).

    It is ludicrous that scientists are being asked to do the job of journalists for them. One of Ben’s main points was that the system is what is at fault, not indiviudal journalists – there are many that are perfectly capable of reporting science acurately and interestingly, the problem is ‘more complicated than that’.
    Ben suggested we should all go and start blogs, but, with respect, i think this is a little naive. Would 100,000 new science blogs containing what pedestrian bench work Joe and Jane lab-monkey are up to today really benefit the public understanding of science?

    I wish there was half as much pressure from research councils to get more scientists _teaching_! School visits, lab open days for A-level students, undergrad lecturing or even just helping colleagues who lecture to prepare course material would improve the quality of teaching offered at all levels and would be a far better use of scientists’ time out of the lab than tweeting, updating yet-another-blog and preparing sensationised press releases. Leave that to the big names.

  15. AntibodyBoy said,

    September 17, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    @mb I’d add that disinterestedly finding out stuff about ourselves, our planet and our universe, just for the intellectual joy of knowing these things, never seems to be assigned a value of any kind in to the new view of what science is for.

  16. SpiderJ said,

    September 17, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    I wasn’t able to come hear the debate, but just listened to the little preview on Radio 5 Live.

    This may be a dumb question – but I couldn’t quite work out why Lord Drayson was so adamant about defending bad journalism. I take his point that more should be done to highlight good journalism, but what does he/Labour stand to gain from a population with poor understanding of science/health issues.

    Is it purely that it’s more important to Labour to keep the drug companies/media companies happy? Or is there an actual intellectual point he is making?

  17. mb said,

    September 17, 2009 at 8:25 pm


    That reminded me of this quote from Richard Feynman. If I had the courage I’d like to use it in one of those boxes in which the Research Councils want us to write about the impact and benefits of our research: 🙂

    “Science is like sex: sometimes something useful come out, but that is not the reason we are doing it” Richard Feynman

    Of course nobody can doubt that something useful came out of Feynman’s work, which makes his point even stronger.

  18. Neil said,

    September 18, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    I don’t think that was the *real* Ben Goldacre. He wasn’t wearing a tank top.

  19. Fission said,

    September 19, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion, even if my stream did regularly skip backwards 10 seconds.

    I was disappointed that I didn’t get to hear Lord Dryson address the final question (with the 1/5 bad facts vs. 1/10 bad facts analogy). Is there anywhere to get that?

  20. bhaji said,

    September 20, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    I,also seem not to be able to view the complete debate as the stream only lasts 1 hr 25 mins and cuts off before the end of the final? question and the summings up.

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