Books written by Ray Sullivan

Monday, 23 January 2012

Good Science Fiction or Bad Science Fact?

On Thursday I pulled up in the car park at lunchtime, stepped out of the car and felt my back go ping.  By the end of lunch I was struggling to transition from sitting to standing while doing a passable impersonation of the diagram that shows the evolution to Homo Sapiens Sapiens from a knuckle dragging Troglodyte.  By the next morning I found myself taking my first day off work in eight years, loaded up with anti-inflammatory tablets, strong pain killers and lying down on my back.

Staring at the ceiling is a no way to operate a laptop so blogging, let alone authoring, was out of the question, but it isn't a bad way to read a Kindle. So I've a had a few days of catching up on books I've stockpiled.

Now I took advantage of the various offers Amazon ran before and after Christmas, so I had a fair amount to choose from.  Unusually for me, though, I've been buying more non-fiction than fiction lately, so it's been a journey through reality for me.

First off, I completed a book I'd been reading for a few days, The Age of Instability by David Smith.

If, like me, you are still reeling from the economic storms of the last four plus years then you could do worse than look at this book.  Smith takes the crisis back to the excesses of the Eighties and the decisions made in the Seventies and rolls out the events in a way that convinces that it wasn't the actions one person, or even one group of persons, that's put us in the position we're in today.  To be fair, though, Smith isn't coy about slamming the rash decisions made by people who should have known better.  What you end up with is a whole host of smoking guns, no shortage of people to blame and a realisation that there is no such thing as a free lunch.  Unfortunately all of us are paying for lunches eaten quite some time ago and I can't help thinking that some, perhaps many, of the truly guilty people involved in very bad decisions did very well out of the events running up to the credit crunch and not all of them have suffered pro rata to the general population.

But underlying much of the tale is that of a poor application of mathematics compounded by decisions made by people who may understand the money markets but didn't understand the equations they were throwing at them.

Another fascinating read, while lying on my back, has been Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.

Ben  is a doctor and a journalist who is on a mission to debunk the nonesense we are all exposed to, by newspapers, television shows, by the medical industry, the phamacutical industry and the myriad charlatans that peddle unproven and often dangerous medical wares on us, often with the support of the media.  Ben runs a website - bad science - that continually campaigns against the issues addressed in this book.  It is billed and pitched as a light hearted approach to this serious subject, but fails in some areas because the subject matter is too important and shocking to fully joke about.  Key to the book is the formalisation of studies - the correct methods to use to conduct fair trials, the correct way to report findings and the accepted ways of reviewing such information. 

He provides tons of information about how poor research, and some of it would struggle to be classed as such, makes its way into the public domain and is often chosen above and beyond strongly validated research.  He specifically debunks psuedo science such as Homeopathy and specific individuals who present themselves as experts in fields that they clearly are not.  Even more importantly Ben explains how data should be collected and interpreted, so you can make your own mind up when reading the newspapers.  If nothing else, this should be required reading for Daily Mail readers so that they can actually attempt to understand the bullshit being presented to them on a daily basis for what it is.  (To be fair, I don't think any British daily newspaper comes out too well in this book, but the Daily Mail does seem to specialise in winding up its readers in a way the the Daily Express seems to specialise in expressing suprise that Diana, one-time Princess of Wales, is dead).

I bought both of these books for under a pound in the sales, and both are more expensive now.  However I unhesitatingly recommend them if for no other reason that everyone should learn from the messages they deliver.  Science Fiction writers, including myself, play fast and loose with data to support a yarn, to make a story interesting.  But ultimately we're honest about the deal - sure we take some of your hard earned money, but we don't pretend we're selling you anything other than a story.  Some SciFi writers end up incredibly prophetic in the long run, but I guess most of us only come tangentially close to the future.  Many of the people referred to in both of these books also generate fiction, often knowingly, often with the sole intent of taking money from innocent people through the smoke and mirrors they create, but they don't label it as fiction.

Hence the title of this blog today, unashamedly nicked from Ben's book title.  We'll never eradicate the charlatans that abuse science, but we can become wiser to them.


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