The War Against Gobbledygook

By Mark Trodden | June 12, 2007 11:33 pm

I’ve just read another fine, short and clear column in The Guardian by Ben Goldacre, whose take on most things I completely agree with. In this case, he’s discussing that a distinguished British academic – Professor David Colquhoun FRS of University College London – has been forced to remove his blog – DC’s Improbable Science Page – from university servers.

Now, for some blogs, this can be a good idea, in order to separate the personal ideas of the blogger on all kinds of subjects from those of their institution. However, this blog is written by a scientist and is entirely about science. In fact, it plays one of the most important roles of science, that of educating the public about how to apply scientific criteria and standards of evidence to things that directly affect their lives. In this case, the claims made by various purveyors of alternative medicine.

This is the kind of work that universities should explicitly support. Sure it costs money to deal with complaints from quacks. Sure the university will lose popularity in some quarters for supporting the fight against charlatans. Sure it may take valuable administrative and legal time and effort to back a scientist in a dispute with cheats and liars. But isn’t this the side a university should want to be on? Either an institution values science and the scientific method or it doesn’t.

The request to take down the blog comes after a number of complaints to UCL’s Provost, including one complaining about Colquhoun’s use of the word gobbledygook. But when he’s writing about topics like psychic surgery, or homeopathy, what better word is there. One might say that ideas like these are stupid, idiotic, complete bollocks, nonsensical, pseudoscientific, claptrap, balderdash, baloney, drivel, mumbo-jumbo, or any one of a hundred other fitting and appropriately insulting phrases, but gobbledygook works just fine.

For a concrete example of the work Prof. Colquhoun does to protect the public by fighting ignorance and scientific dishonesty, here’s a letter he wrote to The Independent, after they advertised the Helios Homeopathy Travellers Kit (costing £38.95) as one of their Top Ten Best Travel First Aid Kits

Sir:

On Monday 24th July you featured The Ten Best Travel first aid kits.

One of these was the Helios Homeopathy Travellers’ kit. All the “remedies” in this kit are in the 30C dilution. They therefore contain no trace of the substance on the label .You pay £38.95 for a lot of sugar pills. To get even one molecule you’d have to swallow a sphere with a diameter equal to the distance from the earth to the sun. That is hard to swallow.

Helios was one of the companies that was pilloried by the Newsnight programme when their representative recommended homeopathic prevention of malaria. That was condemned even by some homeopaths as dangerous and irresponsible.

It is quite simple. This medicine contains no medicine. You are endangering your readers by recommending it.

David Colquhoun
PROFESSOR OF PHARMACOLOGY
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON
LONDON WC1

What a great letter; short, to the point, funny, and phrased in a way that hammers home how silly the idea is in terms the public can understand. Society is in desperate need of scientists to play this role. As Goldacre writes

… in a world where most orthodox “public engagement with science” activity consists of smug, faux-radical “science meets art” projects, Colquhoun – a world expert on single ion channels – was showing the world what science really does. He took dodgy scientific claims, or “hypotheses” as we call them in the trade, and examined the experimental evidence for them, in everyday language, with humour and verve. I would say his blog is a treat for the wider public, and arguably a rather good use of the time and resources of a public servant who has devoted his entire life to academia, on its relatively low wages, never once working for industry.

More and more of our everyday lives depend on scientific discoveries, and the decisions we must make regarding them demand at least a rudimentary understanding of the scientific method. At the same time scientists face increasing demands on their time from grants, teaching and research. The very least a university can do is to stand behind those who find time to take on this valuable role.

Update: It is wonderful to hear that UCL is doing the right thing and now throwing its support fully behind Professor Colquhoun. Goldacre’s Bad Science Blog now has the text of a joint statement from UCL and Colquhoun that states, in conclusion

UCL has a long and outstanding liberal tradition and is committed to encouraging free and frank academic debate. The evidence (or lack thereof) for the claims made for health supplements is a matter of great public interest, and UCL supports all contributions to that debate. The only restriction it places on the use of its facilities is that its staff should use their academic freedom responsibly within the law.
To this end, the Provost and Professor Colquhoun have taken advice from a senior defamation Queen’s Counsel, and we are pleased to announce that Professor Colquhoun’s website — with some modifications effected by him on counsel’s advice – will shortly be restored to UCL’s servers. UCL will not allow staff to use its website for the making of personal attacks on individuals, but continues strongly to support and uphold Professor Colquhoun’s expression of uncompromising opinions as to the claims made for the effectiveness of treatments by the health supplements industry or other similar bodies

Congratulations to Prof. Colquhoun and to UCL.

(Many thanks to Justin for pointing this out in the comment section)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and Society
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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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