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I'm not wearing my bio-med sensors, Houston


What can Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell teach us about scientific scepticism...?

"I'm not wearing my bio-med sensors, Houston"

I have no idea of the real feelings of Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell regarding the never-ending fusillade of continuingly contradictory scientific reports about what is and is not good for us. After all, this is a highly-trained man of science. But every time the BBC comes up with their latest effort to help modern medical science confuse, befuddle and stay funded, giving out advice that is good enough for us but often not good enough for them, here's the clip from movie history that immediately springs to mind...

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Doesn't that feel liberating?

The other problem with making press releases out of research studies is how many people consider the phrase 'half-baked' to ultimately mean 'fallacious'. Creating a climate of confusion in which separate studies can directly contradict eachother even within the space of a month (one wag at BBC News's 'Have Your Say' commented that the latest declaration about small amounts of wine being harmful did not immediately effect him, since he was still drinking last month's wine, purchased back when a little wine was good for you!) not only causes paranoid anxiety in those who believe in the findings, but possibly fatal indifference in the rest of us, who have become immured to the potential value and significance of them. And God forbid we should be left to cope with only our own common sense informing the woefully inadequate fall-back philosophy that 'most things are okay in some kind of moderation'.

The cumulative effect of contradictory information about health issues is a climate of uncertainty about science in general and medical science in particular; while it may seem mean and unethical to withhold the 'tendency' of new findings, and subsequent new decrees about how we should live our lives, just because nothing has yet been proven, this does make it rather difficult to recognise any genuine breakthrough of real value - such as penicillin - when it comes along.

Additionally, the huge number of studies commissioned by bodies which have a vested interest in the outcome ('anti' or 'pro' lobby groups and organisations, as well as pharmaceutical companies and similar concerns) muddle the field for any concerted groups attempting to undertake genuinely objective scientific research.

By way of analogy, anyone who has spent any time using a Windows operating system will have had to try very hard to try and distinguish between genuine objective research about computer security and the equally well-reported 'studies' produced by entities which have a vested interest in promoting paranoia and a climate of commercial susceptibility, such as internet security software companies and other providers of (expensive) technological solutions for unproved problems.

Likewise, the fact that each new scare-story about our lifestyle seems to have a direct commercial beneficiary depending on our response (cash-strapped governments looking to boost Sin Taxes with a public mandate, mega-corporation supermarket chains seeking to pre-empt such taxes and pocket the difference themselves, or drug companies apparently seeking to augment the market for their products) means that any truth found in such research, for a thinking and reasoning person, is practically impossible to distinguish from commercial or political propaganda.

What can you do? Alarming news is real easy to run as an attention-grabber and discussion-provoker; therefore even the outlets for such reports (and the BBC have perhaps the poorest track record of re-reporting contradictory medical studies, putatively out of some interpretation of their mandate to 'inform and educate', but arguably out of the same need for attention/funding that  lies behind so many medical surveys) are so bound up in their own interests that by the time any really valuable information has filtered through, it's virtually impossible to identify - even within the context of  whatever value one can assign to 'preliminary findings'.

Medical science, in my opinion, is in its iron age, psychological science in a kind of late stone age, and all these fields, and the studies which constitute their evolution, may well contribute to some wonderful science-fiction future, and to the deepening of useful human knowledge. But for where we currently are in terms of  medical and scientific development, the situation is comparable to watching another single piece of the jigsaw getting released to the public every few weeks/months; none of the previous pieces seem to match it, and it's only later generations that will see the whole picture and laugh at what our speculations were of what it might have been.

No wonder then that we are inclined to 'Do a Lovell' when the latest about-turn seeks to herd us in the previous direction to last month.

See also:

A rationale for CGI luddites
Why the web mustn't become the new TV
Avatar: In space no-one can see you smoke
Crysis becomes the latest victim of Zumba-epidemic
How to avoid getting a 3D headache while watching Avatar
YouTube and the major film studios


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#1 Brilliant! Caleb Leland 2011-04-12 17:53
Couldn't have put it any better, Martin! Wonderful article.

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