A little piece about mis-quotage, and how it irks me so.
In the space of about 12 hours this week, I read two articles concerning the gross perversion of peer-reviewed scientific literature, and people selectively quoting from said peer-reviewed publications to push forward their own agendas.
I have touched upon homeopaths doing this before, so it should come as no surprise really.
A particularly insidious example (taken from Martin’s blog at layscience.net) was:
Cucherat 2000: “There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo.”
The full, unabridged quote
There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo; however, the strength of this evidence is low because of the low methodological quality of the trials. Studies of high methodological quality were more likely to be negative than the lower quality studies.
Lets us be crystal clear about what is going on here – this is not a mistake. This is not a simple error or omission. Nor is it stupidity or incompetence.
This is lying. Deliberate misdirection. Fabrication. Falsification. Bearing false witness. Mendacity. Fraud. You get the idea.
In the case of the BHA, they misrepresented evidence in front of the UK parliament science and technology committee.
The report is due out on the 22/02/10. I’ll wait and see how far their mendacity gets them.
The second instance of quote-mining lying was discussed in the Guardian piece on how climate change skeptics has mis-quoted the e-mails (so not peer-reviewed) leaked in “climate gate”. Now I’m not a climate scientist, (If you want more info, go to Andy Russell’s excellent blog. He is a climate scientist) but it strikes me that this is probably more important, in that it potentially effects the whole world, and not just the UK. “Climategate” was touted in the international press, and by climate change “skeptics” including Sarah Palin., as example of how global warming is not real, and it is just an artefact created by climatologists… for what reason I have yet to fathom.
(Note: As a general rule – If Sarah Palin agrees with you then there is a very good chance you are wrong.)
The most prominent example of quote-mining in this case was saying that “tricks” were used to alter/obscure data when they were in fact referring to a visual trick to display data.
The trouble facing people at the wrong end of these mis-quotes, is that the initial mis-quote is often seized upon by the press, and then hurtles around the world faster than you can say “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”. The following “erm, actually, I think you’ll find” article rarely gets any coverage, and thus, the general public only see the lies. In such cases the ball lies firmly in the court of the media – “erm, actually, I think you’ll find” articles are not big and sexy – but they are an incredibly important part of maintaining journalistic integrity, and ensuring that the general public is kept well informed. After all, we cannot expect a democracy to make informed choices when the voting public do not have the necessary information.
The point I am trying to get around to making (probably quite badly,) is that the nature of peer-review keeps scientists honest. This is important, as it tends to have the effect of removing personal bias, hyperbole and egos from the science discussed. It may not be perfect – but it is the best system we have for ensuring that good science is published, and bad science is weeded out.
Perversion of peer-reviewed articles and of scientific discourse in general is the domain of the quack and the charlatan – the fact that the BHA and climate change skeptics have resorted to such underhand tactics speaks volumes about their integrity.