There are at least two alternatives to scientific studies. One is to ignore the science and go straight for myth, magic and superstition. The other is to start with a scientific study and then twist it to suit your own purposes. This second appears regularly in the world of science and, unfortunately, is becoming more common.
Take the example of mercury amalgam fillings in teeth. In Britain and America a good proportion of the population has already got these ‘silver’ fillings, and it would be reassuring for them to know that there were no problems associated with such a procedure, even though it means having mercury (a known poison) in your mouth, often for many years. A recent study, we are told, says exactly that: we have nothing to worry about.
Let’s look at this Study. It came out in 2006 and involved a group of 1,000 school children, over a period of 3 years. Hmm, pretty impressive. However, there are several things to note. One is that the age range was 7-10 years old. That tells us something about these children, but there is no way to predict their future health. We can’t be sure what will happen to them from the ages of, say, 17-20 or 27-30, and we certainly can’t work out from this study what is happening to 27 year olds right now. In my case, I’m a good deal older, and I want to know what effect the fillings are having on the 47-50 year olds, or even the 57-60 year olds. Trying to extrapolate from this one Study to that age group is silly but, amazingly, that is exactly what some writers have done. One, a columnist in the Guardian newspaper in London, has tried to assert that this study is ‘reassuring’ for all age groups.
Worse, though the Study was limited to a small geographical area, the writer tries to say that the results apply to all school children, everywhere. Would you believe that? Young people in China and Japan have a completely different health profile to those in Europe. Why, there are studies that show children in the South of England have a different experience to those in the North of England. This writer ignores that. The Study shows these children are healthy, he says, therefore all children will be healthy. No, that’s Bad Science.
There’s more. If this Study looked at the children’s health, you might imagine that when they met up with the scientists conducting the work, (every two months, as it happens), the man in (or woman) in the white coat would be writing down facts about the child’s health on their clipboard. If the child said they had headaches, or infections, or sleepless nights, the information would be noted, right? Not a bit of it. The Study was focussed on neurological development, which meant, basically, three tests: one, was the application of IQ tests on a regular basis; the second area involved brain scans, MRI’s and stuff like …