I, Science vs Ben Goldacre

Adrian Giordani and Ben Kolb – April 2010

After a little harassment on Twitter, Ben Goldacre, the practising doctor, Guardian columnist, author and ‘nerd cheerleader’ took some time out to chat on the phone to the Adrian Giordani, Editor of I, Science and Ben Kolb about journalism, science communication and what’s next for Bad Science.

Despite criticism, stories about homeopathy working well are still common in the media. Why do you think this is?

I think that for journalists, it’s really nice to have what feels like a sort of transgressive story. I think that’s why ‘alternative’ therapies are very attractive. I think it’s also why scare stories are attractive to journalists because it’s very difficult to write critical, investigative journalism in the UK at the moment. Firstly, because it costs quite a lot of money to employ people to go out and do quite labour intensive investigations. And secondly, you’ve got libel laws that allow people with money who are often the people you’re going after in an investigative journalism story[…]to suppress criticism. Health scares come along and they solve both of these problems for journalists, because a health scare allows you to have the appearance of doing something really transgressive, challenging authority but you’re free to just basically make stuff up in the way that journalists sometimes do or at least massively distort the truth because the truth doesn’t  suit you. When you say MMR causes autism or when you write some ridiculous load of ‘tittle-tattle’ about how fish-oil pills improve school performance and behaviour in ‘mainstream’ children. When you produce these superficially transgressive and authority challenging stories, it’s taken no time and effort to do it because you’ve rewritten a press release from some crazy anti-MMR campaigner or some fish-oil pill retailer and there’s no risk because nobody can sue you. You’re not defaming anybody, you’re just writing things which are untrue.

You’re helping out with City University’s new Science Journalism MA by offering internships and I was wondering…

Am I?

Did you hear that, sorry?

Yeah, yeah, it’s just basically, it’s just very surprising news. I didn’t think I was.

Did you not know that? OK, it’s on their website.

Is it?!

Yeah. And so I was just curious…obviously you’re not…

I mean I’m always, I’m always very keen to help people out, especially if they’re kind of out there doing stuff. You know I’ve got that sort of weird English peculiarity of always championing the underdog so I’m always really keen to help out anyone I can see, whether they’re a blogger or a student who’s doing something fun and interesting. You know, I’ll always try and pimp it.

So are you not? I was just asking because I was curious to know what a typical intern would get from an internship with you.

Hahaha.

But if you’re not offering it then…

No, you’re right, how on Earth could they possibly profit?!

I wondered because you’re a doctor obviously, as well as a science journalist and I wondered how…

Errr…There’s one girl who’s on the City University science Master’s who was a biochemist and I’m kind of supervising her dissertation, she’s collecting data on the expression of risk in mainstream media and we’re working on that together so I suppose actually that’s probably what they mean isn’t it?

 

That might be it. I was wondering if you’d give us a few quick tips though, for what I,Science readers might have to do if they wanted to be the next Ben Goldacre?

Ahhh, I mean I dunno …well I suppose the thing that’s, I think the thing that’s worth doing is …I mean I’m not really a science writer am I? I mean I am and everything but I’m not a science journalist. I’ve never sort of set out thinking I’d really like to get a job as a science journalist. So…I don’t, I don’t know… I think I’d automatically feel like a bit of a pompous cock, giving words of advice to young people. Do you know what I mean?

 

I think that’s a pretty good answer.

Actually, in all seriousness, I don’t know if it’ll make you money but one thing that’s really, really worth considering is, I think it’s very, very dangerous for writing to be your only income because that’s how you get into a situation where you think well, I’ve gotta write this completely shitty story because my Editor has told me that he wants it. I really need this job cause I’ve got to pay the mortgage or get food on the table or repay my student loan or repay the career development loan that I took out to do the Master’s in Science Communication. That is a very, very dark path to go down, you know, I think putting yourself in a situation where you have to write something because somebody else wants you to or you have to write something because you need to get some money from writing that month. That’s kind of a path to problems.

 

So you obviously believe in keeping to your principles wherever, as strongly as possible even if it means kind of…

…keeping to your principles makes it sound really pompous though doesn’t it? I mean, I think what I also mean is, if you’ve got two or three different things that you do, that can get you a survivable income. And they’re enjoyable to you, then you’re never in a situation where you’re doing something that you think is dodgy or that you think is boring just to get money.  I think you know, time spent getting yourself into positions where you won’t have to do work that you don’t like is time that’s really, really, really well spent. And I don’t necessarily mean that from a personal and reflective perspective. I mean it’s really, really, really worth spending a lot of time on getting yourself into a position where you enjoy your work but then I suppose there are people who want to make money and that’s no help. I don’t know. I wish I had really great careers advice. I’m sure you’ve got great teachers and stuff and I’m sure you meet people who work in newspapers and stuff, I mean I’ve literally never set foot in the Guardian offices in King’s Cross.

Oh really?

I’ve never been there, are they nice? Have you been?

No we haven’t either.

If you go, let me know!

 

But do you see the future of journalism as more of a free-lance thing? Would you rather it was that way if it meant people didn’t have to compromise their principles?

No, no, no, I think there’s lots of really good stuff done by science journalists and there’s lots of stuff where it needs to be a full-time job. There is one thing that I have a bit of problem with and that is: I’ve got a bit of a problem with the idea that science writers are necessarily the people who should write about science. Because I think, I worry that it might be driven partly by the ego of the science writers, I mean, I’m now talking myself into a situation where you’re just going to write about what I massive bastard I am for saying this…

No we’re not going to do that to you. You’ve got a whole community that could come back at us and destroy us, it’s fine…

Oh, fuck no, I wouldn’t worry about that. See I think in an ideal world often the best people to write about science are people who work in that field, people who are working scientists. And what I’d really like to see is fewer science writers and more science editors. More people who see it as their job to help scientists communicate about their own work or about work in their field. in their own words. If you ever do go in and sort of work on maybe a features desk in a newspaper, you’ll find that people who regard themselves as ‘features’ journalists really do email in some of the most appalling, disorganised bullshit, that then has to be fixed from top to bottom by the editors on the features desk- that happens in every publication. There are book publishing operations where book editors have to rewrite books for people. What I think is bizarre is why do you bother having science writers? Why don’t you just have really good editors who can help people who work in a field to chorale their thoughts, to get a good structure to their piece, to express themselves clearly? Why not help them do that? Because people who work actively in a field of science, they know that field backwards., Their distractions and the nuances of their language and the diversions that they drift off as they write and their ability to spot the flaws in somebody’s case will be head and shoulders above somebody who’s just come to it, spending four or five hours working on it, on that one day. I think a really good model of this is Radio 4 science, cause Radio 4 does popular science better than pretty much anywhere else. If you listen to a Radio 4 science documentary about 70% of the words in it are spoken by the scientists themselves. But that’s not to say that they’re making these programmes by themselves. Their words are edited down, they’re cut down, they’re reordered, they’re organised in presentable ways by the people who are producing the show. There are people there who are saying: “well I’m not sure the people quite get that, could you explain that maybe in another way?”. But they’re not insisting that they write and present the whole of the show. They’re not insisting that they mediate the ideas to the public. And I think that’s really crucial and I think that’s why in all honesty,  for mainstream reporting and also for comments on science issues, I think scientists communicating themselves about their own field, but assisted by very able science editors could well be a much better model for science communication than science writers. I’m surprised by how resistant science writers are to that idea.

And what about scientists’ resistance to the media itself, being willing to do this in the first place and then be edited?

I think scientists are cautious with very good reason about talking to journalists. They see stories like when Jonathan Leake from the Sunday Times misrepresents somebody’s research and then they can’t even a get a correction or  letter printed. I think you can allay a lot of the concerns if you say well, you know, you’re writing the article. There’s a lot less to be scared of in that case.

 

Do you think it’s a realistic foresight in the next few years or do you think what you’ve just said was more idealistic than the realities of the industry?

 

It’s like any other change in culture, if people start doing it and people see that it produces good content, then other people will follow their lead. I think the Eureka magazine from the Times for example, although some of it’s fairly dull, a lot of the good stuff in there is where they’ve got working scientists in to write about work in their own fields, so that’s I guess an example of people cracking on and doing that. I find it’s the stuff that interests me, especially if it’s areas that I know nothing about, I’m always much more interested in reading a scientist talking about that, themselves, than I am in reading the opinion of some random person who’s decided to be a specialist for six hours in it.

 

Sure, cause it authenticates it for you, doesn’t it?

No, it’s not about trust. It’s just that I find it’s better written and I find that it’s being written by somebody who has a depth of knowledge that allows them to develop new metaphors or to be  more imaginative or expressive in the way that they describe things. Or, they can identify similarities with other areas of their own field or of other people’s fields. Or they can spot the shortcomings in a given experiment which doesn’t necessarily destroy it, blow it out of the water, but the interesting methodological limitations that you need to know about when you’re thinking about something. It just feels like a much better ride.

 

So what’s next for you? Are you planning Bad Science II or Worse Science perhaps?

 

Hahaha, cool man, you should be in Marketing, that’s for sure. Well I don’t know. There are a lot of “Bad…” books now aren’t there? There’s ‘Bad Ideas’ by Robert Winston, a man who I regard as laughable.

I don’t know if we’ll be allowed to print that. He’s Professor of Science and Society or something…he’s got a powerful position here at Imperial.

Yeah, he collects powerful positions and makes very, very boring TV shows and also personally endorsed a commercial product containing fish oil and appeared in all their adverts. Adverts which were subsequently banned by the Advertising Standards Authority because they breached their conditions on truthfulness and accuracy…I’m starting up a web TV project and if there are people around who are interested in knocking films together, helping out on that, or editing stuff down, anything like that, then I’m always really up for hearing from people.

 

So, can you tell us a little bit more about this project? What you’re hoping to show on it? Is it going to be something like Bad Science, but televised?

Yeah, it’s going to be really, really amateurish, it’s gonna be lots of really long, quite boring interviews with senior academics mixed in with short funny silly films. And you know, it’s not a very grand project but I don’t have very strong, you know, do you know what I mean? I’ll give it a go. I’ll see what happens. If it’s funny, it’s funny. If it’s not, I’ll move on.

 

And unfortunately, he did when we ran out of time, but for even more of what Ben had to say visit the I, Science website! Get in touch and let us know what you think of his opinions via http://twitter.com/I_science_mag or email us: i.science@imperial.ac.uk. If this has given you the taste for Goldacre, check out his column in the Guardian or visit his website http://www.badscience.net.

Ben Goldacre – The EXTRA Online Bits

 

You’re clearly very active online and on your own website a large community has developed. We were wondering how you find it balancing your medical career with your Bad Science work and your online output?

 

I think there are loads and loads of people out there who write and blog at the same time as doing what they do. I don’t think it takes a lot of time to write if you’re thinking about stuff but actually, I’m sure as you can imagine I’m a ridiculously nerdy, loser-ish man and I love kit. I’ve been lucky enough to find ways of streamlining the technology around me so that I can generate content pretty quickly and easily. I basically break a laptop every 6 to 9 months.

Wow…

…because I take them out in the rain if I need to do an email or whatever! But with a laptop that’s got built-in 3G and a 9hr battery that comes out of suspend mode very, very quickly, you can get an awful lot done and also with a Google Android phone. You know most of the stuff that I post on Twitter is links and most of those are things where I’m reading links people have sent me over email or I’m reading through the places that I go to, to find interesting stuff like my favourite RSS feeds or http://www.reddit.com/r/science/. There’s a button that you can press in the browser on Google Android where it saves the link to http://delicious.com/ which is a social bookmarking site. Then those links on there get copied into the Mini-Blog on the right hand side of the web page http://www.badscience.net/ and also get copied into http://twitter.com/bengoldacre. Stop me if I’m boring you but that’s kind of how you can churn out a lot of content really easily and quickly.

 

So that’s how you get around it, with technical skills and well, blogging skills…Cool.

 

Yeah, I mean…I think calling them skills makes it sound like it’s difficult and complicated, and it’s not. I really wish people would do it more actually and I find the stuff that I really find interesting on Twitter falls into two camps I suppose. One half is the sort of chitter-chat that drifts past you like a river of noise but it’s very nice if you work on your own. I remember when Skype first came out; I had a friend who was working from home and I was a medical student and we just left Skype open between our offices, like between our bedrooms so that we could have the sense of somebody else being around and I think Twitter’s a bit like that. But the other thing it’s great for is just a really quick and easy, and convenient way of people ‘whacking’ up links for things that they’ve found that are interesting. That’s the thing that’s really interesting about new media, the way that it opens up new ways of ‘finding new stuff’ that you didn’t know that you were interested in. In the past, the kind of top-down model of traditional media was very much that there is an individual curator; the editor and his staff, who make decisions about what they’re going to give you that you’re going to find interesting and you choose publications or television channels on the basis of whether you think that their curator’s decisions are going to be things that you’re interested in. But with Twitter and social bookmarking, people posting links on Delicious feeds, and all that sort of stuff, what you get is a whole sort of mess of 150 people who you’ve come across, who you quite like. Maybe you’ve followed one link to their stuff, that was really cool or they wrote a really interesting blog post and you go, “I’ll follow them and see what they come out with in the future”. Then over the next week maybe they post a whole load of really interesting links to stuff that you never would have come across normally or maybe they just talk about their arguments with their girlfriend in which case you wouldn’t follow them. I think democratisation of people being able to curate content and direct you to stuff, even if it’s in mainstream media that was out there, but that you didn’t know that you liked is almost as exciting as people being able to publish stuff for themselves.

 

Do you feel that from engaging through blogging and twittering you’ve also been heavily influenced by the feedback and discussions you’ve had with other people online? Do you feel you’ve gained as much as you’ve given?

 

Oh, I’ve gained much more than I’ve ever given and that’s the brilliant thing about it I think. You start to feel like you’re part of this giant cultural partwork. I mean there are people who I regard as head and shoulders above me, who don’t have any kind of paying outlet in science writing now. Vaughan from http://www.mindhacks.com/ does the best science coverage on neuroscience research of anyone that I’ve ever come across anywhere. And huge numbers of the Bad Science bloggers; the kind of people who write about the quackery and dodgy science reporting, huge numbers of them are absolutely fantastic. But the other thing that’s really great about things like Twitter and blog comments is, if you read them you can familiarise yourself with the arguments of people you disagree with very rapidly and that’s really important and interesting too, cause it really helps you to hone down your own argument. Obviously a lot of blog comments are very, very unpleasant people shouting about how you’re a bit like Hitler or whatever but for the stuff that’s sensible, where people sensibly engage, it’s a really great window into understanding other people’s perspectives. It goes without saying that your own mind is changed very commonly online, by other people’s arguments. For example, I used to not really be very bothered about NHS funding for homeopathy. I used to think I wasn’t that bothered either way, but I’ve been talked around and I think that kind of dynamic process that you get these days is really, really, properly, properly amazing. Lord only knows what happens next in this wonderful new universe!

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7 thoughts on “I, Science vs Ben Goldacre

  1. Goodness me that’s a bit good. Don’t know what my favourite bit is. Well I do, but it wouldn’t be professionally expedient to say 🙂 I think he nails twitter, and the point about the rhetorical function of transgression re: health scares is very true (though equally scientists have used that approach too). Ben Goldacre gold. Brilliant stuff.

  2. Great interview. Interesting to hear about his tech working process and more detail on his opinions about journalism. Much more clarity than the ‘Journalists, you all have blood on your hands’ comments you usually hear reported from him. The Q&A transcript template works really well in bringing that out, as well as his personality. Interesting, as some interviewees I’ve spoken to dislike it as they feel it’s too quick and dirty, hanging their laundry out for all to see!

  3. Excellent interview – love the literal transcription. Really get a feel for Ben’s enthusiasm.. though surely he would have meant “corral” rather than “chorale their thoughts”?

    …unless he thought they were really on song.

  4. Bad science is good business for Ben – £5000 to give 1 hour lectures to students! Still they negotiated him down to £2000. Scientist or entertainer? Give me Winston any day.

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