Friday, 3 August 2012

Comment #10: -- Why I Hate The BBC's Foremost Science Program - Horizon

For those of you who don’t know, ‘Horizon’ is one of the BBC’s Science programmes, broadcast on BBC2... and i loathe it!
But why? You love Science! Why do you hate a Science programme so much?
Well, whether you’re sitting comfortably or not, i’ll begin...

I hate Horizon because it gives people misconceptions of what Science is, and how it works.
Let’s take the latest episode (as of the 24th July – the time of writing) which was the first in the series ‘The Truth About Looking Young’, as an example of how low it sinks.

Infuriatingly, the presenter begins the programme with rhetoric about why she’s a scientist (a cosmetic surgeon – as close to being a science researcher as a butcher is to a pharmacist)...
Whenever i hear people explicitly declare their motivations, i get suspicious – i suspect they’re trying to dupe me – after all, an honest person would not have to say it. Their motivations would be clear.

But presumably the programme is going to be about how to do cosmetic surgery, right?
Wrong – the subject’s a chain of fathoms off her area of expertise – with the subject matter being dermic photodegredation, diet, pharmaceuticals... and should include the scientific method, which it doesn’t, despite medical Science being a convoluted one, in which strict adherence to the scientific method is necessary, to avoid dodgy ideas creeping in through the back door.
Now, i accept that people with epidemiological expertise in the class of Ben Goldacre are sparse, but they could have got someone!? Surely?....

So just when she should have said something to restore my confidence in her – after all, amateurs can certainly get good at doing Science – something indicative of a deep understanding of what Science actually is, was called for. Instead, she said this:
If it’s supported by evidence... “then maybe, just maybe, i’ll believe it”
What the f....??
If it’s supported by evidence, then it is true – you *should* believe it!

No-one walks into a greengrocer’s, looks at the stalls, sees evidence of cucumbers, sitting neatly between the potatoes and the peppers, and thinks to themselves:
“Well, the claim of cucumbers is supported by evidence, so maybe, just maybe, i’ll believe that they are there”
Who, in their right mind, does this?
Evidence makes things evident. Is the tautology not obvious enough? If evidence says cucumbers are in front of your eyes, you believe in cucumbers – there is no room for “maybe”s.

The only reason i can think of for making such a fatuous statement, is to suck up to the superstitionists – the pseudoscientists – the quacks – the bullshitters – who *do not* have evidence that their products work, but carry on selling them, regardless.
(In retrospect, having seen the rest of the programme, i can see utility to this menacing concession)
((Can a concession be menacing? It seems i am a poet!))

The actual content commences thusly:
She introduces two lorry drivers to us, and then takes them to Manchester University, where the Uni people take pictures of their faces. These pictures reveal more extensive sagging of the skin on their left-hand sides.
This is all well and good. Slightly discombobulating -- why lorry drivers? (there was no pre-stated context) – but still in contention as useful.
And then they jump from the observations, straight to ‘driving has caused them to wrinkle more on the right-hand sides of their faces’
When she is cajoled into having her own face scanned (by the lorry drivers) she is in exactly the same condition --  because, y’know, cosmetic surgeons do a heck of a lot of driving...

At this point in the program, they could have made an excellent segment, introducing the Ocean Dilemma (my own term – my Mini-Essay on it), prompted by this correlatory pickle. If she has experienced the same effect, then how do they know driving is the variable to do with the skin sagging and wrinkling?
They could have:
-- introduced and explained the importance of sample bias
-- introduced and explained the importance of confirmation bias
-- reminded everyone of the importance of scepticism
-- had a go at familiarising people with what *real*statistics look like
-- explained how they know that driving is the variable that not only correlates with but causes the skin sagging (if they even do!)
And did they do any of these things? You bet they didn’t!

Of course, a really atrocious program can’t go a whole hour, and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, without pushing the same old bunkum about omega 3 and antioxidants, as if they’re the miracle cure that shines out of Cthulhu, our Lord and Saviour’s ass!
(Pis-smelling intentional)
The case for omega3 is paltry and the case for antioxidants is complicated and confusing (not worthy of a casual reference) and yet a skit is inserted into the program, advising people to eat more fish, and more broccoli, as if it would be good advice!

Listen up, people...
If you ate as much as would be necessary to get the amount of all these chemicals that they say you should consume, to live a few years longer, you would die decades earlier, from the massive pressure your heart would be under, due to the masses of fat crushing its cardiovascular system from the outside, and clogging it up on the inside.
All food turns to fat, when digested. They are encouraging you to get fat, to get healthy. A self-defeating suggestion!
The scientific consensus has been, for decades, and will continue to be:
“Eat a healthy, balanced diet”
The cost of eating too much is massively more potent than the cost of not eating enough broccolis!
I shall suspend my diet-related rant, for the end-of-the-program-related shocker...

And, can you believe this... an advert for Unilever!?
As if they need help conning people into thinking they do useful Science research – they lose the negative results (industry labs do, you know) – that renders their studies useless.

She even says ‘we should wait until the results are published in a peer-reviewed journal, and then it’ll be settled’.
No it won’t. That is only the start.
We then have to wait for replications, which the Journals are loath to publish, because replications damage their ‘impact factor’ (a crude but easy measure of the Journal’s potency)
Because of this system, private-sector research companies, like Unilever, and the soon-to-be-mentioned L’Oreal can get away with research results that are either unreplicable, or simply fail to substantiate effectiveness.
Whether their product has an effect in control conditions does not necessarily mean it will be a useful product – the effect might be tiny

And on to the L’Oreal advert...

L’Oreal is, of course, working on a cream to sell.
Hands up -- who saw that coming?
Okay, everyone.
L’Oreal spends all its time looking for new ways to sell its cream moisturiser at prices higher than cream’s moisturiser’s really worth.

Using subjective appreciations of other people’s age (subjective ones are the easiest to mine for good-looking sets of results, because they vary the most), they have substantiated that...
‘Blood glucose determines facial age’
They could have:
-- introduced and explained the importance of sample bias
-- introduced and explained the importance of confirmation bias
-- reminded everyone of the importance of skepticism
-- had a go at familiarising people with what *real*statistics look like
-- explained how they know that [glucose] is the variable that not only correlates with but causes the [facial ageing] (if they even do!)
And did they do any of these things? You bet they didn’t!
Yes – i’ve said this before. It’s the same flaw all over again.
They could have investigated whether the data’s really representative of the science; but did they? No.
I’ve seen rank amateurs embody the scientific method better than this – a BBC department with millions of pounds in its budget. And they can’t even be bothered to show us a little data!
Just a table?
A graph, with some labelled axes?
An N (sample size) value?
A few error bars?
Please – give us something.
No-one’s ever going to get familiar with Science if they never actually see it!
The closest we get is a graph... without units on its axes. Ugh.

There isn’t even a cogent mechanism by which L’Oreal’s cream could work – the epidermis has evolved specifically to prevent creams from penetrating it – they just slough off, and pollute the environment.
<s> But there’s nothing that can’t be solved, when you have a few testimonials and an expensive-looking simulation of sagging skin in your armoury.

Well, that’s the main a-science out of the way... now to conclude the programme with a casual and harmless remark...

“it’s made me more careful about what i eat”

Brilliant! As if there aren’t enough reasons for kids to develop appearance-based eating disorders, they can now worry about how their diet’s going to affect their skin.

Brilliant, BBC. Absolutely brilliant. I hope you’re proud of yourselves.

The Round-up:

I shall truncate my condemnation of the BBC’s treatment of Science, because there are actually BBC programs that do it quite well. And i’m not just thinking of ‘The Sky At Night’, programmes David Attenborough does, and ‘The infinite Monkey Cage’ (Radio)
Personally, and as an aside, i’m wondering whether The Sky At Night’ll degrade, when Patrick Moore retires, or whether Chris Lintott and the others will keep the standard up.
But the program i want to draw your attention to now, for the sake of comparison, is ‘Panorama

The reason i favour Panorama over Horizon, is that it actually exhibits skepticism, despite being a political program, rather than a scientific one. Sure, it sometimes mistakes skepticism for cynicism, but it has a better record than Horizon's, in recent past.
Skepticism is intrinsic to the scientific method; it’s crucial to the pursuit of truth.
Panorama does this; Horizon does not.
Consequently, the BBC pushes the erroneous notion that skepticism is a political thing, and dim-witted believe-everything-you-heariness is how Science works. It is not. And that is why i hate the BBC’s foremost Science program so much.
The pitiful inadequacies of this episode are rarely absent from Horizon episodes these days, although, thankfully, they are not always present in such high frequencies.
I would also prefer it if Physics-themed programmes actually had a presentation cast of physicists. As wonderful as Kate Humble is, an exuberant appreciation of the world's wildlife does not a good physics-communicator make!

I have a Pseudoscience section on my blog with good reason – there are plenty of people in the world who are pretending to be doing Science – we do not need a publicly funded broadcaster jumping on their charlatanistic, gullibility-exploiting bandwagon.
There are people in the world who are trying to communicate Science to the public. Richard Wiseman, for example, is Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertforshire. Why are they not being employed by the BBC? Presumably because they intend on higher standards of science communication, which the Beeb's management self-defeatingly frowns on as 'disenfranchising the public'.

Prove me wrong, BBC. prove me wrong. Please.

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