Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Using bad science for the greater good

These days, you can't open a newspaper or magazine without bumping into bad science: poorly explained topics, unsubstantiated claims, theories touted as facts. And the web isn't helping any -- anyone can put up a website and claim whatever they choose. So, how do we separate bad science from good?

Ben Goldacre is a British doctor who writes a weekly column in the Guardian devoted to the topic of Bad Science. He also teamed up with Planet Science to develop a series of experiments to test some of the crazier claims.

I like the idea of taking bad science and using it for good. Testing crazy or unproven claims (as long as they aren't dangerous) can be fun. It's also a good opportunity to practice setting up an experiment.

For example, instead of rolling your eyes at the next television commercial -- the one that promises that this new and improved breakfast cereal is tastier than the leading brand -- why not put the claim to the test? Set up your own scientific trial at breakfast. Blindfold your family, put two bowls of cereal (one bowl of the old brand, one of the new) in front of each person, and record their responses. Do they like the new cereal? Could they taste a difference?

Or, if a new dishwashing detergent claims to make your dishes less spotty, do your mom a favor and run a load of dishes. Compare the newly washed glasses to the previously washed ones. How do they compare? Do you get a different answer if you count the spots in a new way? Do you get a different answer depending upon how many dishes you examine?

Questioning the world around you is the hallmark of a good scientist. And that applies to everything you read -- including this post!

(My thanks to CricketB for pointing out the benefits of Bad Science!)


Sara DownToEarth said...

Great idea! We rarely watch TV, but when we do I am always horrified at the advertisements, especially on kids' shows.

Here's one of our favorite activities: Turn the sound off during the commercials and have your kids try to guess what the commercial is selling. It is surprising how often it is not clear what the actual product is!

jublke said...

I agree with you, Sara! I am appalled at how violent and/or heavy-handed some of the commercials are, especially when the shows themselves are mild.

Dave Barry wrote in one of his books that commercials often try to convince people that their product is the exact opposite of what it really is. So, if you see an advertisement for a "hot new car," the advertisers are really thinking that it looks like every other car on the market. Or if the ad says the product will make you look younger and more attractive, the fear is that it won't do anything, and might even make you look worse!

I've taken to listening for the main message of the ad (This soy milk is so delicious!) and then turning it around to see if it is true (This soy milk tastes terrible!). It's kind of fun, and like your wonderful activity, it's another way to dilute the power of advertising.