Saturday, 19 November 2011

19th November 2011 – Bad Science.

Whether we care to admit it or not, the internet has seen an explosion of poor and bad information, and some deliberate miss-information about a large number of scientific topics. Barely a week goes past without some journalist or other raising their standard on new ground and declaring this or that is bad for you.

Too many people take what they read as the gospel truth, rather than applying Occam’s razor to the subject and seeing whether what is left is real or not, and should it be a cause for worry, a cause for concern or simply ignored.

One of my favourite examples of this was the scare about using Aspartame based sweeteners instead of sugar, as this could give rise to vastly increased risks of cancer. Since most artificially sweetened products recommended for diabetics contain Aspartame, and both my wife and I are diabetics now, this was obviously of concern.

It didn’t take long to find the basis of this research was actually flawed. To start with, the research was funded by sugar producers, which tends to flag up the research as being tailored to meet the brief the researchers were given. Secondly, the quantities being fed to the rats which had a higher tendency to develop cancer beggared belief. The rats most prone to cancer were regularly being fed their own bodyweight in Aspartame. I defy anyone to eat the equivalent dosage!

It simply goes to prove the adage, that not everything you see and read is truth, and don’t over indulge in anything – it’s bad for you.

The same point is also true in fiction; you see, I am getting to the point from a writer’s viewpoint. A friend of mine, as it happens a good writer, and a published author, is currently trying to produce a time travel adventure thriller for a young adult market. He’s desperately trying to avoid all the tired clichés of the subject and come up with something new, a laudable aim if ever there is one.

There is one piece of very bad science in his early chapters though, which threatens to undermine the whole book. His time machine comes from the far future and is very sophisticated. When our adventurers go back from the present day to the 11th Century and they leave the machine, their memories of all historical knowledge since then are erased so they cannot inadvertently disrupt said history.

That sounds reasonable, you say?

Actually no.

On the next page one of the time travellers notes to one of the others, how the tangled woodland and narrow mud tracks surrounding them bears little resemblance to the ordered rows of pine trees and wide roads from their own time. That’s fine you say, as does he, that’s not historical knowledge, that’s geographical in nature and the two are unrelated.

At the risk of repeating myself, actually, no.

If you still retain knowledge of ordered rows of cultivated pines, you’ve retained knowledge of how the world came to be like that, why there are roads rather than narrow tracks. The technology that created the modern world is still there in your brain, ergo the history that created that technology is still there. Fundamentally the problem with all such memory wiping is you cannot isolate types of memory, and remove historical knowledge, or geographical knowledge, or economic knowledge, they are all interlinked.

You have to find another mechanism that works, or don’t try to draw comparisons between the “then” worked, and the “now” world. The trouble is that’s a good way to keep the reader’s interest and we tend to use those kind of comparisons a lot when we’re writing.

The big question is, does it matter?

Possibly, and possibly not. With an increasingly literate readership, these things are becoming more and more important all the time.

I’ll let you decide...

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