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How Scientists Are Fighting Bad Science

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The IRSN (the French public expert in nuclear and radiological risks) in Vesinet, France. Simulating a chemical accident and the emergency measures to be taken. Chemical substances in the eye.
Even scientists can be sucked in by bad science. (Getty Images)


Data is the key to science. However, it can be the key to bad science as well. After all, it’s possible to misinterpret data, whether accidentally or willfully. In the interests of keeping aspiring scientists on the straight and narrow, Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West from the University of Washington have published the outline of a course titled, “Calling B.S.” (Sadly, this amazing class has yet to be approved by the university.)

Nevertheless, it offers some decidedly worthy objectives for science. The pair conducted an extensive interview with Steve Kolowich of The Chronicle of Higher Education. We’ve highlighted some of the key takeaways for all of us, whether in the field of science or not.

Defining B.S. Bergstrom: “How we define it is: ‘language, statistical figures, graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.'”

Dig Into the Numbers. Bergstrom: “… we see [B.S.] done quantitatively with figures, data graphics, and with appeal to algorithms that generate results but which no one really understands.”

Does B.S. Have Benefits? West: “Since our focus will be on number or algorithmic or graphic manipulation, I think in that case it is all bad.”

Don’t Believe the B.S. Bergstrom: “I believe the whole purpose of statistics is to impose a sort of rigor on messy data and make strong claims, or formally specify how strong of claims we can make, given the data. Some people will say, ‘Well, the statistics I used was actually not sufficiently conservative and so my confidence interval is probably a little broader—but, it’s close enough.’ And I really dislike that.”

The Beauty of B.S. West: “More and more beautiful graphs are being produced. Which is great! But with that come lots and lots of mistakes in arguments and the way they’re presenting the data.”

To read the full interview and learn a lot more about bad science and B.S. in general, click here.

RealClearLife Staff