Tag Archives: public understanding of science

In defence of free scientific speech

Dear Tony Lloyd,

I am a scientist and senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, and your constituent. I am writing to you regarding the libel laws in England.

At present it is possible to sue someone for asserting that there is no scientific evidence in support of a particular theory.  As you may be aware, The British Chiropractice Association is suing the journalist and science writer Simon Singh for libel after he wrote that there is little evidence that chiropractic treatments are evidence-based.  There is a useful summary (and petition, which I and many others have signed) here.

This is not how science works.  Science thrives on debate, and on use of the scientific method to demonstrate whether, based on the available evidence, a given theory is likely to be correct.  Freedom of speech in science is vital and is one of the greatest forces contributing to intellectual progress: if I believe you are wrong, I state my opinion and then back it up with appropriate scientific evidence; if you then disagree with me, you present the evidence supporting your counterargument, and so on.  In this way, we approach the truth about science – sometimes tangentially and almost always incrementally – but we do move forward.  To bypass this route is to silence the voice of rational, reasoned, evidence-based debate in science and medicine; is this what we want for our country?

On the matter of the BCA vs. Singh: if the BCA has any evidence in support of their case, then they should present it and let it be debated, rather than resorting to litigation – that they have not done this rather suggests that their evidence would not withstand scientific scrutiny.

But the bigger point remains: it should not be possible to sue someone for making a scientifically verifiable assertion based on the available evidence to date.  This case, before it is even resolved, sets an alarming precedent that anything asserted by a scientist, however well-grounded in verifiable data, could be challenged under current libel laws.  This would be a markedly retrograde step at a time when the doors of scientific debate are open wider than ever before.

If we in the UK wish to be taken seriously as a hub of scientific and medical excellence, and build on our ‘knowledge economy’, it should not be so easy to silence that debate.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Chris Atherton

(Hat-tip to David Farbey for the petition link. And yeah, this wasn’t how I was going to spend this morning, but Burns was right about those best-laid schemes.)

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Being clear about uncertainty

The Guardian reports Professor Dylan Williams as saying that exam results are unreliable:

“People who manage and produce tests have a responsibility to be honest about the margins of error and report them. By pretending exam results are completely reliable, we have encouraged people to rely more on them.”

This is not really news to anyone in education, but may shock students and parents who, I’m sure, would like to think that we always get it right. And we should be striving to improve the system, because, well, it should be as fair as we can possibly make it.

But wait a minute …

“By pretending exam results are completely reliable …”

Who’s pretending? The Institute of Education? Schools?

Well, maybe. No-one likes the appearance of being unfair. But I think there’s another party here, too: the media.

The message of this news story is that the system is not perfect. But of course, no real, living, breathing system will ever be perfect! There will always be exceptions, and in any system involving measurement, there will be a margin of error — except that this is hardly ever reported in the UK media. Here, on a good day, you get sampling information.

It’s a different story in North America: there, it’s routine to find statistical data, such as polls measuring political approval ratings or voting intentions, accompanied by information — often quite detailed — about the margin of error. And they take it pretty seriously, too.

When I read these stories in the New York Times or Globe And Mail it makes me feel like we’re statistically illiterate in this country.

I’m not saying this is all the media’s fault – we could do way more to ensure statistical literacy while people are still in school. But maybe reporters should try including information about margin of error anyway. I’m thinking that even a vague awareness among the general public that there is some uncertainty about the results of any statistical exercise would be better than unthinking acceptance of whatever numbers emerge. What’s the worst that can happen?

(PS – I’m reminded that polls are the worst way of measuring public opinion and public behaviour — except for all the others ;o)

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