Huppert’s right – MPs do need a crash course in science.


12:25 pm - August 10th 2010

by Unity    


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Is rookie Lib-Dem MP Julian Huppert right to suggest that MPs should be required to take a ‘crash course in basic scientific techniques‘?

Although some are clearly not enamoured of the idea, I think there’s ample evidence that Julian is on to something here, particularly in suggesting, by implication, that many MPs lack the skills and knowledge necessary to understand much of the information that’s presented to them on a regular basis.

Only the other day, Tory Health Minister Anne Milton provided a prime example of the merits of Huppert’s suggestion while making a concerted effort to reclaim the title ‘milk snatcher’ for a new generation of Tory ministers;

I am writing to you about our proposals to abolish the long-standing statutory Nursery Milk scheme, which is Great Britain-wide, by April 2011.

There is no evidence that it improves the health of very young children yet the cost of delivering it is increasing significantly, almost doubling in the last five years.

There is indeed very little evidence that consuming cows milk improves the health of very young children, but this because the vast majority of studies that have examined the health benefits of milk have been conducted on older children, and most of those on pre and post-pubescent girls. There is, however, a very important difference between the being no evidence of a health intervention’s effect and having evidence that the intervention is ineffective, as the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews correctly notes:

A common mistake when there is inconclusive evidence is to confuse ‘no evidence of an effect’ with ‘evidence of no effect’. When there is inconclusive evidence, it is wrong to claim that it shows that an intervention has ‘no effect’ or is ‘no different’ from the control intervention. It is safer to report the data, with a confidence interval, as being compatible with either a reduction or an increase in the outcome.

It’s not for lack of evidence that, for example, both the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and the British Medical Association have called for the NHS to discontinue funding for homeopathic services, rather there is more than enough evidence that homeopathy has no effect beyond placebo to justify such a recommendation, a fact that continues to elude homeopathy’s supporters and, sadly, the government as well.

It should be noted that what Julian Huppert is calling for here is not a science course in the conventional sense of studying physics, chemistry or biology but one that would cover fundamental concepts common across all the sciences and beyond, into economics and the social sciences, particularly those required to understand and interpret evidence correctly.

As much as Tom Harris might think that its ‘difficult to make the case for sending MPs on crash science courses before the case for educating us about finance and economics, or law, or the construction industry, or the TV industry, or the internet‘, I would have no such difficulty. Most if not all of those fields will, from time to time, generate statistical ‘evidence’ to support arguments put to MPs in favour of, or against, particular aspects of tax policy, statutory regulation or public sector spending and it would be extremely reassuring to know that MPs are at least reasonably well-equipped to make sense of that evidence and adequately sift the wheat from the chaff.

It’s not just MPs who need a ‘science’ education.

If anything, I’d go much further than even Julian Huppert has suggested and extend his proposal to include senior civil servants and executive members of other public sector bodies and agencies whose role requires them to consider statistical evidence when making decisions on the commissioning of services and the spending of public money because, again, there is ample evidence to support such a proposal.

In the early 1990s, researchers from the University of Bristol conducted a study of ‘evidence-based purchasing’ in the NHS (published as Fahey et al, 1995 in the BMJ) in which 182 executive and non-executive members of NHS Health Authorities in two regions (Anglia and Oxford) were asked to review four proposals for either a mammography or cardiac rehabilitation programme and indicate whether they would be prepared to fund each of the programmes. In each case, the four proposals provided for consideration all related to the same proposed programme and differed signficantly only in the manner in which the statistical evidence for the effectiveness of the programme was presented, i.e. as a relative risk reduction, absolute risk reduction, proportion of event free patients, or as the number of patients needed to be treated to prevent an adverse event.

For both interventions, the proposal that presented its evidence in terms of relative risk reduction received significantly greater support (mammography = 79%, cardiac rehab = 76%) than the ‘next best option’ (mammography = 51%, cardiac rehab = 62%) with two of the mammography proposals receiving only half the level of support (38%) of the leading proposal.

Only 3 of the 140 individuals who actively participated in the study correctly identified that all four proposals they were asked to review presented the same clinical results.

The other key feature of the study worth commenting on is that although both the interventions used showed very similar relative benefits, the absolute benefits of each of the two interventions were very different, specifically the background of risk of death for a patient having had at least one prior heart attack is 85 times greater than that of a middle-aged woman who would have been eligible to enter the proposed mammography screening programme. Had the study also gone on to ask participants to choose between the two interventions on the basis that they could fund only one of them, its conceivable that a significant number would have opted for the mammography screening programme despite the fact that, in absolute terms, it would provide considerably lower benefits than the cardiac rehab programme.

It in situations like that, which are likely to become more and come prevalent as public spending cuts begin to bite, that the true value of an education in the fundmentals of science becomes apparent…

…although I pity the poor sod charged with educating Nadine Dorries in the science, a task not dissimilar to that of teaching table manners to the starving wolverine.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Health ,Libdems ,Science

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Reader comments


It’s not so much science as critical thinking, which is a key part of good science, and scientific/statical language.

Explaining the differences in relative verses absolute risk, and what is meant by ‘Significant’, p values etc. In this context such terms have a very specific meaning, which is critically different to the general usage, and a lack or understanding this can lead to missing or misinterpreting the point the author was trying to make.

They could do worse than regularly read Bad Science, either Ben Goldacre’s column in the Guardian or the website. Both recommended.

A few key books as well. I’m currently enjoying reading ‘The Demon Haunted World’ by Carl Sagan. We’ve just bought Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces which I’m looking forward to reading. Also, a book I read years ago as an undergraduate: ‘How to Lie with Statistics’.

It would be nice if everyone, not just MPs, had a basic understanding of science and statistics. Perhaps the media could also manage to avoid hysterical headlines telling us that 45% of subjects in a survey ‘only’ got less than average score, or that because the life expectancy rates are, say, 65 years for a man in Glasgow, most men in Glasgow aged 64 are likely to die at 65!

3. margin4error

I genuinely think the public at large, but particularly those making decisions for others, need statistical training. And by that I mean an explanation of some fairly simple concepts.

It still astounds me the number of people who confuse correlation with causation. Likewise some basic explanation of the importance of sample size would be nice.

4. Rhys Williams

Perhaps they could do with little of Popper’s falsification theory

Richard Feynman’s “Cargo Cult Science” as required reading would be a start… It’s an essay on what science isn’t.

Yes, Feynman’s essay is well worth reading, so…

http://www.lhup.edu/~DSIMANEK/cargocul.htm

Personally, I’d also chuck in Martin Gardner’s ‘Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science’, Michael Shermer’s ‘Why People Believe Wierd Things’ and Harry Frankfurt’s excellent monograph ‘On Bullshit’.

How much is it reasonable to expect an MP to be able to do themselves? Especially if the poor sods have suffered through exposure to postmodernist theories as part of their “education”. Surely they woul benefit most by developing the tools to enable them to spot bollocks and take good advice? Having good advisors and quality briefings available in the Commons Library could help too. Isn’t there a need for work in these areas too?

Having good advisors and quality briefings available in the Commons Library could help too. Isn’t there a need for work in these areas too?

I’m sure there is but at the same time MPs need to know enough to ask the right kinds of questions when confronted with evidence, particularly statistical evidence, in order to direct the research undertaken by advisors in a fruitful direction.

The fact that we have homeopathy on the NHS suggests to me that Huppert is indeed right. He’s also right to oppose the Digital Economy Act. The more I hear about this guy, the more I like him.

If anything, I’d go much further than even Julian Huppert has suggested and extend his proposal to include senior civil servants and executive members of other public sector bodies and agencies whose role requires them to consider statistical evidence when making decisions on the commissioning of services and the spending of public money because, again, there is ample evidence to support such a proposal.

I’d go even further than you: the whole population would benefit from understanding scientific thinking and statistics, as these are nothing less than the Methods Of Rationality. Since everyone can vote, it helps them to know this stuff to be a good citizen, and it is also useful in their everyday lives.

Because we live in a world where any fact is just a Google search away, education needs to be based more on learning how to learn, how to think, how to understand, than on learning lots of specific facts

Wikipedia has an interesting page on a related note; summarised as:

“Measuring is easy. What’s hard is knowing what it is you’re measuring and what your measurement shows.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Search_engine_test

Shorter response: Bayes Theorem

It’s certainly a much better idea than the usual one, which involves calling for parliament to be composed entirely of scientific technocrats, which is what some sciency politicoes do from time to time without the slightest intimation that this might involve us in wider difficulties (democracy, representation. That shit.)

But then, I also think that Tom Harris does have a point, insofar as there are other major bodies of technocratic knowledge that are just as ill-understood and would be just as useful, although he picks some pretty dumb examples (we need more trained lawyers in parliament? Really?) Tax is the one that springs to my mind – most MPs are pretty fiscally illiterate and great questions of political loyalty and positioning do often swing on tax policy.

@M4E
“It still astounds me the number of people who confuse correlation with causation.”

Still astounds me the number of think tanks that do it.

“I’d go even further than you: the whole population would benefit from understanding scientific thinking and statistics”

They should really make it a compulsory part of the curriculum in schools.

Planeshift,

They should really make it a compulsory part of the curriculum in schools.

It is the compulsory curriculum that probably means it is not taught in schools any more – the aim is to teach the prescribed things, not the things people need.

It should probably be referred to as a crash course in statistics and evidence, rather than science. To a scientist the word “science” means, more or less, the scientific method, but to the man on the street it means the collection of facts that have been discovered using science.

In an ideal world we’d all learn Bayes’ theorem at GCSE level or earlier*, and assessing evidence would be second nature to everyone – not just politicians but jurors, doctors, patients and everyone else – but sadly we’re far from that world and crash-courses for those that need them the most seem like a very sensible idea.

* as a scientist I was saddened to read the probability section of an AS level maths exam paper recently. None of the questions were based on Bayes’ theorem. Most were something like “out of 55 people in a town, 11 recycle their glass bottles. Assuming two people bump into each other completely at random, what is the probability that they both recycle their glass bottles?” This is shockingly elementary and based on an unjustifiable assumption (people in towns don’t bump into one another at random), but, more than that, it’s a stupid question that nobody could possibly ever have any reason to ask. If this is the sort of level at which we’re teaching people who’ve already decided to specialise in the mathematical sciences it’s no wonder that people struggle with statistics.

It’s trying to be a “relevant” by using the word buzz word ‘recycle’.

The fact that as you point out it makes unstated assumptions i.e. that anyone is equally likely to run into anyone else. A seconds worth of critical thinking shows this is untrue as people frequently drop of bottles for recycling so may bump into each other there (and that people encourage each other to recycle etc….). THAT is what needs to be taught – random in statistical/scientific terms has a specific meaning.

These kind of questions cause part of the problem, they discourage people from realising that the real world of people in never that simple. if you said, “If you pick two names at random from a list of residence” then it would be far better and still “relevant”

I think I understand why Bayes Theorem is cited by a number of posters. However to properly apply the theorem a certain amount of clear understanding of the system in question is required. Isn’t the point really that MPs (or all of us) need better bullshit detectors?

I suggest an understanding of the common logical fallacies would be a better starting point. Asking someone to quickly judge complex stats is a bit too much, but enabling them to judge whether something is simple or needs a bit more analysis would surely be a big step in the right direction?

Hence the need for some lessons in critical thinking, essentially being your own BS detector.
The science terminology lessons are just enablers, it would be like trying to negotiate in French when you only have a GCSE in it, tricky if not impossible and with a high chance of misunderstandings.

A genuine question from a non-scientist: I understand your point about the fact that the lack of evidence for milk’s benefits to infants is due to insufficient research, and I understand that this isn’t evidence of no effect. But what is the reason for the apparent implication that we should therefore assume the milk is beneficial until proven otherwise? Is it scientific to wait for the benefit to be disproved rather than wait for it to be demonstrated? Are you suggesting that the correct approach is to assume that conventional wisdom is correct until we have good enough reasons to think otherwise?

It also seems to me that the minister’s statement “there is no evidence that it improves” is true. It may mislead people, and it may even be intended to do so, but it is still true – she didn’t say “there is evidence that it doesn’t improve”, and while she didn’t say that the lack of evidence was due to a lack of research, neither did she say that it wasn’t due to a lack of research, or that there had been any.

The key part here is “It may mislead people, and it may even be intended to do so,”

The scientific approach would be to proposed research and wait for the results, it was given as an example of a bad use of “scientific” language not as a comment on policy.

The thing is that sometimes the scientific an answer is “I don’t know”; as no-one has asked that exact question yet. This is usually followed by I can try and find an answer, this isn’t a failure of scientific knowledge it’s how it expands.

Fiddle didn’t finish.

The problem being they are implying they are using science when they are not and degrading future use of evidence in the public perception, by saying something dubious that is unsupported, and ‘implied’ there was research to support their position. I the policy was “suspend pending research” fine, if the support was it’s expensive; fine, but the use of rhetoric to imply scientific backing is just a problem

22. Harry Latour

Never mind ‘science” if most MP’s could just open a toolbox and have a rough idea of how to use the tools inside,,,it would make them think differently about how infrastructure helps to oil the wheels of recovery.I am a retired mechanical engineer and it really annoys me that so many chances are being missed during this downturn (which is giving us lots of ‘spare’ labour) to make a start on many cutting edge energy schemes which would improve our status for when the full recovery comes.Otherwise it will be the usual,,,rush,rush,,waste,waste,,just to catch up,,,,and then,,,down we go again.Some EU cities are already putting in E.V infrastructure,,,to cut pollution and waste.It is all out there ”on the net” if you want to see it.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg

  2. Unity

    RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg 'Patronising' MPs is not always a bad thing!

  3. Owen Blacker

    RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg

  4. Mark Henderson

    Excellent stuff. RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg #scipolicy #scivote

  5. Chris Paul

    RT @Unity_MoT: RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg 'Patronising' MPs is not always …

  6. Alok Jha

    RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg #scipolicy #scivote

  7. Alice Bell

    Nope, it's bollocks RT @markgfh Excellent stuff RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg

  8. Stephen J Henstridge

    RT @markgfh: Excellent stuff. RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg #scipolicy #scivote

  9. Alice Bell

    If I find time, I'll do a blogpost on why "scientific literacy" is silly. I do agree with some of what Huppert says http://bit.ly/9xLMSg

  10. Christian Hunt

    RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg #scipolicy #scivote (via @alokjha)

  11. Frank Nuijens

    RT @alicebell: If I find time, I'll do a blogpost on why "scientific literacy" is silly. I do agree with some of what Huppert says http://bit.ly/9xLMSg

  12. Richard King

    RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg

  13. Nathaniel Simpson

    RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg

  14. Roy Meijer ?? ????

    Reading Bad Science would be a start http://bit.ly/agWj2j RT @alicebell why "scientific literacy" is silly http://bit.ly/9xLMSg

  15. Helen Jeffries

    RT @libcon: Huppert's right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://bit.ly/9xLMSg

  16. fifeman58

    Huppert’s right – MPs do need a crash course in science. http://j.mp/dBsYHu

  17. bedminsterbugbear

    Ignorance indeed remains the hallmark of contemporary public debate http://bit.ly/9ROANm





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