Radio 4's Everything We Know Is Wrong was an eye-opening look into misappliance of science


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Good news, everyone. You can stop drafting your funeral playlists. Step away from the Robbie Williams CD. It turns out that that steak won't do you any harm after all. Nor will the butter on your toast, nor the red wine that you absent-mindedly glug down while chortling away in front of Gogglebox. Why? Because the scientists got it wrong and you're not facing imminent death after all. So relax. Have another glass of wine.

Everything We Know Is Wrong on Radio 4 wasn't a programme about health; it was about the uncertainty of science, a factor that scientists and academics themselves seem loath to admit. According to the presenter Jolyon Jenkins, when you read the words "a new study suggests..." in a newspaper, more often than not it's a load of old tosh. And that "hilarious" chestnut: "99 per cent of all statistics are made up"? Not so wide of the mark after all.

Listening to Jenkins was a liberating and eye-opening experience, giving us permission to stick two fingers up at the endless stream of conflicting advice dispensed by medical science. While he just about stopped short of announcing, "scientific researchers are full of it", the message was clear: science isn't to be trusted.

Jenkins pointed to a Newsnight item in the late Seventies about how pet owners were found to be less likely to die from heart-related illness than non-pet owners. Researchers had looked at heart patients and found that those with dogs had lower blood pressure and a greater survival rate. A year after the initial study, a second one was conducted, this time concluding that the death rate for those with pets was in fact higher than those without. Inevitably, this was not publicised.

Thirty years on and there's no conclusive evidence either way about the effects of pet ownership on those with heart conditions. What we do know is that, according to Dr John Ioannidis at Stanford University, we shouldn't have much confidence in what scientific papers have to say in the first place.

Ioannidis is the author of a paper called Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, which is very meta of him. In it, he says that fewer than half of scientific papers are to be believed (a non-statistic if ever you've heard one) and that many studies are too small to draw firm conclusions. Furthermore, a lack of resources means that follow-up studies, which would clarify the early ones, are rarely conducted. And yet, with academics under more pressure than ever to produce research, the "discoveries" keep coming.

Jenkins went on to uncover an unpleasant world of academia in which scientists are pitted against one another and in which researchers are under enormous pressure to produce positive results in order to advance their careers. In the process, he blew our trust in small-scale scientific research sky-high, and made mincemeat of know-it-all types who like to parrot statistics while telling you how that extra glass of wine will shave two days off your life.

Even so, I'd like to have known what it means for the rest of us. What about the industries that are discredited when it's decided that their product is no longer the elixir of life? What of the poor chumps that have made lifestyle changes based on spurious academic findings? More importantly, what of the ickle furry animals, welcomed into the homes of hypochondriacs in the Seventies in the hope that it would ward off heart troubles? These are things we need to know. Perhaps someone could commission a study.