Bad Data and Bad Science

It’s been almost a year since I last posted, so I figured I’d take something I’m passionate about to work back into the whole writing thing. It helps that this topic has been spurred on courtesy of Twitter debates and a book I recently finished.

People who know me know that I’m pretty easy going. It takes a lot to get me worked up, in either a positive or a negative direction. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there is one really easy way to get me fired up: bad data and/or bad science. It’s quite often that one of these follows from the other, but every now and then they show up individually. It doesn’t even matter if I agree with the conclusions. If the path to get there is littered with bad data or bad science, I can’t help but feel the urge to tear it apart.

I’ve been feeling these pangs for a couple years now, but the first place I really noticed thetm was when I stopped reading Respectful Insolence. It was always a bit of a chore to read because of the length of the articles and the occasional jargon, but what pushed me over the edge to remove it from my RSS feeds was that I just couldn’t handle his rantings against the anti-vaccine movement. Don’t misunderstand me; I agree wholeheartedly. The problem was that just reading the refutation of anti-vaccine garbage was enough to get my blood boiling.

It doesn’t matter if the topic is Medicare fraud, chiropractic medicine, or just how to perform some action in a video game. When someone presents an argument with incorrect or unsubstantiated data, I simply cannot ignore it. If I see anything that even looks suspect, I will gladly spend the next chunk of time researching it to find out if it’s valid. Unfortunately, this will often lead me to feel like the character presented below:

Duty Calls

As I mentioned in the beginning, a book that I read recently helped bring this post together. How Risky Is It, Really? is a book that I should have been able to enjoy with ease. I completely agree that today’s society has overblown most risks and basically ignored some of the ones that actually are important. However, I found myself shaking my head and beginning to skim through it because of how loosely the author plays with the data. I can mostly forgive things like rounding for effect, but every time, to quote Tim Minchin, “a small crack appears in my diplomacy dike.” By halfway through the book my diplomacy dike was nothing but rubble.

Above and beyond that, the author was a reporter for most of his career, and despite all of his attempts to warn against the way the media plays on the fears, he falls into old patterns. It’s written with an eye for the “Gotcha!” reveal, and while I can certainly appreciate that in certain contexts, this is not one of them. As mentioned, he plays loose with the data, and has a tendency to only scratch the surface of what I would consider the factual content of the book. I finished it, because I (almost) always finish books that I start, but if I’m being honest, I started skimming for the last 30 pages.

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