Saturday, 19 July 2008

Plausible theories from experts

This posting, from the rather excellent Mind Hacks, got me all worked up again (this is quite easy to do). It just struck me how easy it is to say something plausible, for example "increasing violence is caused by computer games", and then make no attempt to check whether it's true.

In this case the plausible statement is on the use of facebook, the internet, other such things. It even managed to be press released by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. This starts off
A generation of Internet users who have never known a world where you can't surf on-line may be growing up with a different and potentially dangerous view of the world and their own identity, according to a warning delivered to the Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Could be true. I wouldn't like to say. Things start to smell a little funny when they say
This is the age group involved with the Bridgend suicides and what many of these young people had in common was their use of Internet to communicate.
OK stop there. Now I'm suspicious, don't all young people use the internet? By the way, the Bridgend suicides are also being blamed on mobile phone masts and, for all I know, computer games. In fact it feels like there is a rather sinister trend for untested/untestable claims to be applied to these tragic events, and why? Because it will get press attention. Without a doubt.

It seems that a horrible statistical fluctuation in the all-too-large distribution of teenage suicides is not a satisfying reason for the media or the public. And this leaves the door wide open for "experts" to fill the gap.

It's just too easy to say you think something is true and then press release to an unquestioning media. A classic example is the evolutionary psychology stuff (badscience has lots on this). These are the claims that we will split in to two distinct races or that we will evolve big willies. The papers just say that "Experts say..." washing themselves of responsibility. But who are these experts? Many of the proposals are plausible but that's not enough.

I could spend all day coming up with things that could be true. Unless it is testable then what use is it? Physicists come up with plausible theories all the time, but no one will get the nobel prize until it can be tested. The famous Feynman quote goes
"It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong."
I appreciate that physics experiments are much easier (and by that I mean controlled) than social experiments, but that's no excuse for claiming you have the answer when all you have is a plausible explanation. It's a massively important distinction.

To anyone claiming to know the cause of the Bridgend suicides I beg you to think carefully; teenage suicide is a serious problem and they deserve much much better.

Edit: Here's the BBC coverage


  1. Sadly it's all too true. Now what was the scientific journal that the research about a subspecies and man evolving humongous willies to appear in? Science? Nature perhaps? No, far more credible than both of those, for a documentary on "Men and Motors" channel. It doesn't get any more highbrow than that! The "research" still found its way onto the BBC, sadly not on April fools day though. Probably only because it involved references to gigantic penises, and that's interesting to everyone, right.

  2. Ha ha, they probably have a "penis" keyword search or something. Maybe they'll read this now...

    Only just changed my settings so I get notified about comments - expected that to be default to be honest grr.