Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Science, the media and the Next-Big-Thing

There's a new column starting on The Guardian newspaper website about Bad Science and about bad science reporting here. This guy obviously has a few issues but i think he's onto something, and i suspect most scientists secretly agree with him. There is a lot of really great science going on out there but 3 column inches of space are not going to do it justice. Couple the space restriction with a reporter who's probably out of their depth and a funding system that demands a scientist insist their research is the N-B-T and how the world will be transmogrified into a glorious utopia within 3-5 years after the patent pending process has had a few kinks worked out. Top 4 things to look for when assessing whether you should waste 2 min of your life reading a newspaper science story:
  1. Does the story point you towards any peer-reviewed studies or does it just say something like 'studies have shown wearing body glitter make you 18% more likeable'? If a story doesn't let you check the original data for yourself so that you can draw your own conclusions, it's rubbish.
  2. Check for dodgy statistics. Just cause excel gives you a squillion statistical functions doesn't mean your average reporter knows what to do with them. One of my favourites is 'doing xyz will increase you risk of abc cancer 400%!' What they fail to mention or put in perspective is that you had a 1 in 10 million chance of this cancer before and now you have a 4 in 10 million chance. Yes, its a 400% bigger chance but lets face it, hardly something that should worry you on a daily basis.
  3. Key phrase 1: 3-5 years away from production (everything is always 3-5 years away, it was 3-5 years away 5 years ago and it'll probably be 3-5 years away in 3-5 years). doesn't mean they're being deceitful, scale-up and getting a result to translate from the lab to real world is REALLY hard and often underestimated at every stage.
  4. Key Phrase 2: Patent Pending. Protecting intellectual property is important but only in the same way as backing up your data. Its not the end-point, its just something you have to do on the way. There are a million ways to get screwed over if you don't protect yourself with patents, once patented, there's only about 10,000.

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