Good Science

Although The Knot Garden strives to be self-reliant, it acknowledges its dependency on nature. In particular, it appreciates the important role played in plant pollination by the many species of bees that visit in the Spring and Summer. The bees are the life force of The Knot Garden. Without them, it would not exist.

Having learned from Ben Goldacre’s book just how much bad science there is in the world, I am keen, in the spirit of balancing things up a little, to find some examples of good science. I recently discovered a candidate project in the form of a study published last year by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The purpose of the study was to determine the extent to which the treatment of oilseed rape with neonicotinoids has impacted bee populations in the UK. Evidence collected during the study suggests a clear correlation between neonicotinoid use and declines in bee colonies, although there is a caveat that the outcome should be seen in the context of other environmental factors such as habitat loss, climate change and mite infestations.

On the one hand, we need to be wary of taking at face value the sort of headline statistics favoured by the press in their relentless pursuit of sensationalism. On the other, we should resist the temptation to simply reject all scientific studies on the grounds that simple truths cannot be proven using statistics. In the absence of a register of research studies operated along the lines suggested by Ben Goldacre in his book, we need to have a way of critically assessing these papers for ourselves.

Given the limited time I have for evaluating scientific studies, I decided to adopt a high level framework that would help me to quickly determine a study’s value. Here are the criteria that I selected, together with my take on how the neonicotinoids study fares.

First we have impartiality. Any study sponsored by an organisation that has a commercial interest in the outcome should be ruled out immediately. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology was set up specifically to act as an independent research agency and has adopted impartiality as a core guiding principle. And the project was subject to the scrutiny of an independent scientific advisory committee.

Second comes credentials. Are the individuals well qualified to perform the research? The scientists who took part in the project have impressive CVs. Those for five of the seven authors can be read on the website of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Third , we need to examine the scope of the research. Were the scale, duration and depth of the project adequate to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn? The neonicotinoids study was conducted over a period of eighteen years, covered over 4,000 square kilometres of farmland and examined populations of bees of 62 different species.  Detailed information about the study can be found online.

As a fourth element, we should consider how well the study was designed and how effectively its conditions were controlled and its measurements taken. This is the hard part and I have not had the time to perform more than a cursory evaluation. However, one of the authors helpfully gives a detailed analysis of the statistical methods used in one of his blog posts.

Naturally, The Knot Garden is very keen to understand whether neonicotinoids harm bees. But, beyond that, it advocates good science. I believe that this important study, with its implications for the future of bees, qualifies as such.

Arrogance and Academia

The Knot Garden strongly disapproves of arrogance. However, as dangerous as it is on its own, arrogance becomes especially pernicious when combined with academia. Much good work comes out of academia and we would doubtless be all the poorer without it but when academics succumb to arrogance they lose that fine sense of balance between self-assurance and open-mindedness that is so important to members of their profession.

Often, the marriage of these two traits in an individual is illuminating but falls short of causing real damage – other than to the reputation of the academic. I recall reading an article on the Internet in 2014 by a so-called “professor of finance” at a well known university in the United States, in which he predicted the demise of the Bitcoin, forecasting that the price of the cryptocurrency would fall to under ten dollars by the end of the year. The writer displayed a heavy bias towards the Federal Reserve, whose policies he unequivocally supported. I imagine that, like Ben Bernanke, he was a great advocate of the printing press as the government’s primary currency management tool.

Such a bias, when observed in an academic, might be seen as a red flag. Surely the primary functions of people of letters are to research, analyse, educate, put forward well reasoned arguments and develop hypotheses? Everyone is entitled to express an opinion – even an academic – but this one, in the form of a very precise price prediction, was made in public in a fashion that shouted out “I know what is going to happen to the Bitcoin. Forget the Market and listen to me. I am better than the Market.”

After his prediction failed spectacularly (the Bitcoin reached a low of around $200 by the end of the year and then rose to over $1,000) the academic published a follow up post asserting that his prediction would still succeed. How could that be? After the target date had already passed? Perhaps he has a different perspective on time than us mere mortals.

At the opposite end of the scale we can find examples of arrogance that do cause damage. One case in particular has a high profile, having received comprehensive coverage in Roger Lowenstein’s excellent book “When Genius Failed”. The Long Term Capital Management story was a sensational example of institutional arrogance in a company whose principals were taken from the top drawer of finance academia.

Reading Lowenstein’s book, the extreme arrogance of the players is evident. Most of them refused to associate with “ordinary people”, remaining encapsulated in their artificial world with its absolute belief in efficient markets. Motivated by avarice, Wall Street’s bankers fell over themselves to secure for themselves the largest share of the action by granting Long Term Capital Management the most valuable trading terms.

After making impressively high returns in its first three years, the company incurred losses of $4.6 billion in less than four months during the first half of 1998. A massive rescue operation co-ordinated by the US Government was launched in order to avoid a catastrophic failure of the banking system.

The ironically named Long Term Capital Management started from a dangerous base of academia allied with arrogance. Then, driven by greed, it turned the formula into a financially deadly one by building outrageous amounts of leverage into its trades. Operating within a shroud of secrecy by keeping their derivative positions off the balance sheet, the principals followed their toxic path in the sure knowledge that they were infallible. How’s that for arrogance?

The Black Art of Marketing

Wherever we look in the world today we see the tentacles of the marketing monster reaching into our lives. The dictionary benignly defines marketing as “…the business of promoting and selling products or services…”. I would like to propose some alternative definitions. How about “The black art of persuading people to spend money on stuff they don’t really need”. Or “A commercially driven method of manipulating consumers using misleading information.”

As you can probably tell, marketing is not on my list of favourite activities. That does not mean that I am completely opposed to it. But all too often I find the marketing practices of businesses insidious. I am attracted to the concept of marketing but repelled by its methods.

Some elements of marketing campaigns are laughable rather than dangerous. I was entertained by a recent television commercial claiming that you can lose seven times more weight using their well known diet system than you could by yourself. Well, that’s great. I can shed one hundred pounds of body mass if I sign up. Impressive, but I wonder whether my friends would still recognise me at my new streamlined weight of six stone? And goodness knows how much I would need to shell out for a new wardrobe.

For a more troubling perspective on marketing I recommend Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science. I read it over the Christmas break and feel it rivals Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, which I was revisiting at the time, as a horror story. It may not have the literary panache or style of the original vampire tale but there are parallels. And, frighteningly, Bad Science is a non-fiction work.

The central thread running through Goldacre’s account of commercially sponsored information abuse is the widespread failure to use rigorous scientific method in support of claims for health products or forms of treatment. He discusses in detail several major examples of deception from the spheres of alternative medicine, journalism and the pharmaceutical industry. Ultimately the consumer suffers but one is also left feeling just a little sorry for the poor old GPs who get caught in the crossfire.

The snake oil salesman, a character we thought had disappeared with the Wild West, is alive and kicking in our modern world of technological marvels. But, instead of operating from a wagon drawn by horses, his present day counterpart inhabits wealthy businesses, multi-billion dollar corporations and national newspapers.

The Internet, that magnificent tribute to man’s technological ingenuity, extends the reach of the giant marketing octopus exponentially, multiplying the opportunities to profit from misinformation.

In spite of the views expressed here, The Knot Garden recognises that marketing can be a positive, constructive force in our world. But we should recognise the potential for using unethical practices, especially in important fields concerned with human health, where there are massive conflicts of interest at work. Armed with this awareness, we are better able to avoid the pitfalls.

The Field of Gems

Some people believe that all you need to do to bring an object of desire into your life is to harness the power of visualisation, in a “Law of Attractions” sort of way. Imagine how much fun you would have if you could turn your mind into a 3D printer. Until, that is, you have to explain to the authorities where all the stuff came from.

Simply wishing The Knot Garden into existence and building a vivid mental image of it will not make it materialise, as if by magic, from the ether. Effective planning and hard work are required and, like many projects, this one needs financing. The Knot Garden understands this and, in the spirit of independence, proclaims that it will be self-funding. When I ask it where the wealth will come from, it tells me to go to the Field of Gems.

Fortunately I already know this place, as I have been visiting it for more than sixteen years. That is how I spend my spare time – scrabbling around in the dirt on my hands and knees looking for precious gemstones.

I go to the Field (to use its abbreviated name) in the evenings and at weekends, when the workday hubbub has faded. Sparkling stones proliferate there, reflecting the light like a million tiny stars. They are scattered on the rough, scrub-covered ground or buried just below the surface.

You can buy any of the stones, which vary in price according to their size and colour. They are quite cheap but most of them have little value, just as you would expect of objects made from zirconium dioxide instead of carbon. And, in the cut-throat market of the Field, price is not an indicator of authenticity.

Simulated diamonds may look real but their distinct chemical composition and crystalline structure cause them to differ markedly from authentic gems in their brilliance, hardness, weight, density, thermal conductivity and light refraction index. And yet telling them apart, especially when working in the Field without any specialised equipment, is not easy.

Provenance is everything. Which would you rather own – a stone made in a matter of minutes in a microwave? Or one that grew naturally billions of years ago in that stable area of the Earth’s mantle known as the cratonic lithosphere?

The big problem with prospecting in the Field, as you will have guessed, lies in the very high ratio of artificial gems to real ones. Most punters buy bags full of stones, hoping to strike it rich. They work hard at selling the fakes to get their money back. Sometimes they get lucky but more often than not they are on a fool’s errand. They might as well be playing the lottery.

My strategy is different. I spend my time learning where to look for the real gems and how to recognise them. Finding a few good ones in a year is enough. I believe that in the long run the Field of Gems will reward my diligence.