Since You Asked

Why weird science is all in a day’s work

Stories of the formula for the perfect penalty kick are cheaper than an ads, writes Tim Harford

‘People who have surgery towards the end of the week are more likely to die than those who have procedures earlier on, researchers say’ BBC.co.uk, May 29

This is presumably the National Health Service’s equivalent of Detroit’s lemons. If you buy a car that was assembled on a Friday afternoon, woe betide you . . . 

It is conceivable surgeons operate after a boozy Friday lunch. A more plausible explanation is the NHS is short-staffed at weekends and so if your surgery leads to complications you may be less likely to get prompt attention from experienced staff. Several studies have suggested it’s not a great idea to be stuck in hospital over the weekend, but there has been a suspicion the problem may not be the staff but the patients. Those who rock up for emergency surgery at three o’clock on a Saturday morning may just be different sorts of people with different conditions, compared to those who arrive at lunchtime on Wednesday. This research looked at planned surgery, not emergency surgery, which (one hopes) removes that source of confusion.

I’m sceptical. Haven’t we heard “researchers say” all sorts of things about different days of the week?

“Researchers say” the strangest things, at least according to the newspapers. You may be thinking of the “Blue Monday” equation, which purported to show the last Monday in January was, scientifically speaking, the year’s most depressing day.

That’s the one!

It’s nonsense. Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit” pointed out while a liar knows the truth and is determined to conceal it, the bull merchant has no interest in whether something is true or not. This particular piece of nonsense is arbitrary pseudoscience.

Researchers publish nonsensical pseudoscience in the media all the time. Which is why I was sceptical about the “don’t get sick on Friday” study.

The problem is we constantly read that “researchers say” one thing or another. Perhaps that phrase once conveyed something meaningful – that experts had conducted a rigorous study on a topic and that we didn’t need to worry with the details, but could skip to the punchline. If so, public relations companies have hijacked the phrase, using it as a vector to infect the nervous systems of journalists and their editors. The Blue Monday study was paid for by a travel agency. Other nonsensical equations have been commissioned by ice cream makers, lingerie manufacturers, supermarkets and bookmakers. Some academic is persuaded to attach his good name to the sorry affair – and the definition of “academic” is often very loose. Nobody cares. Stories breathlessly relating the discovery of the mathematical formula for the perfect penalty kick, the perfect pair of breasts or the perfect weekend are routinely published. They are cheaper than paying for advertising.

But you’re going to tell me that the hospital mortality study was different, because it wasn’t sponsored by some corporate PR outfit?

You’re missing the point. The real flaw with Blue Monday wasn’t that it was commissioned by a corporation. It was that it had no scientific content. Science isn’t just whatever emerges from the mouth of someone with a tenuous university affiliation. Science is a process. The hospital study is part of that scientific process. It identified a hypothesis of importance. It gathered data – more than 4m inpatient admissions for every hospital in England over the course of three years. It analysed the data, with enough statistical power that the observed patterns were enormously unlikely to be the result of chance. It found an effect that was large enough to be of real practical concern. The research refers to, and supplements, previous studies in the area – and future studies will refer to, and supplement, this one. It was peer-reviewed and published in the British Medical Journal, an organ with a reputation to defend.

So the research checks out.

With apologies to Star Trek, I’m an economist, Jim, not a doctor. But it looks solid to me. Whether the BMJ study ultimately turns out to be correct, it is a world away from Blue Monday or the equation for the beer-goggles effect. Yet to the casual consumer of newspaper reporting, the difference is far from clear. So now half the country is credulous about pseudoscience, while the other half is disbelieving of perfectly good research. It’s all far more disheartening than a Monday morning.

Also published at ft.com.

1st of June, 2013Since You Asked • Comments off