Thursday, 20 May 2010

Who do you trust? Trusting in Reputation

We live in a world of "Information Overload". So how do we know which information we can trust and what we cannot?

One way we often sort opinions from each other is based upon reputation. Everyone has their own favorite intellectuals/scientist whose views you are more likely to agree with than their opponents. In this way knowledge is very much like politics and it cannot claim to be completely objective. This is a warning to always beware hype, especially when someone is telling you they know the absolute definite truth.

Now one of my favorite TV scientists is Professor Robert Winston. He is a very well respected fertility expert and a pioneer of IVF treatment, for which he received a peerage. He is currently Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Imperial College London. So his recent work has focused more on the media aspects of science than on the scientific research itself, but he still is an expert and he still should be carrying out decent science and he should be someone whose opinions I can trust. Here is one of his articles:
Are women more likely to conceive if they enjoy sex?

Ok so is this a good article? Can I trust what it says? Here is a bit of the text:

"Publication of an inconclusive study like this might encourage infertile
patients to feel even worse about themselves when there was no clear evidence
that orgasm improves fertility in the majority of women. "

So another question. Is it responsible to publish this anecdotal study in a newspaper, especially in the women's section? He is saying that it might be true but we have not got enough evidence.

Here are some links to pages critical of this sort of article and also some of Prof Winston's other endorsements:
Petra Boynton on a similar sexual health article in the Times
Ben Goldacre criticising his promotion of Omega-3

So there is not always one view and even the most respected scientists can get things wrong (Linus Pauling and vitamin C). So what is the best judge of what to trust? There is a growing movement towards waht is called "evidence based" approaches in fields such as medicine and even politics. So we do not make decisions based on hunches or ideologies but instead based on evidence.

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