Our Victorian of the Year and Order of Australia recipient should have been examined on this text before he was let anywhere near a Pandemic Order Register.
J. Scott Armstrong and Kesten C. Green have co-authored a book that should be compulsory reading for all state and federal ‘Chief Health Officers’ – those bureaucratic functionaries who ought never to have been shoved blinking in front of cameras to do the dirty work of clueless Premiers and Prime Ministers.
With the assistance of a set of simple checklists described and explained in the book, they would have been able to tell that the advice to avoid touching the football if it got kicked into the stands was something only a certified lunatic would suggest; instead, Nicola Spurrier, South Australia’s Chief Public Health Officer, repeated that ‘advice’. Mind you, she also advised Father Christmas to be quadruple boosted. She still holds this post. Who’s the lunatic?
Reading ‘The Scientific Method – A Guide to Finding Useful Knowledge’ is like watching replays of a batting collapse, groaning at the basic errors as the ball sails between bat and pad – which any junior cricket coach will tell you should be close together – to strike middle stump over and over again. The examples given in this comprehensive work of the ways scientific studies and journals fall victim to avoidable errors and bias, just keep on coming, making for sobering reading. Just how many different ways can ‘the science’ go wrong? About as many ways as there are to be dismissed in cricket, and then some.
The book was first published in 2022. Given the target-rich environment that was the utter calamity of the Covid era, the authors have shown remarkable restraint in their choices of examples of failure to follow the scientific method, Not a single example could I find that referenced the absurdities, and atrocities, visited upon us during that time, ostensibly backed by ‘the science’. You know, the ‘science’ that said 6 feet apart is ok; that standing up to have a drink is ok but sitting down is not; that a learner driver should be prevented from practicing, and a dying parent should be denied comfort; that an 8 pm curfew made sense. It’s probably just as well, or the work may have come to be regarded as a polemical work, the authors smeared as conspiracy theorists, and much valuable insight thereby lost to future generations of aspiring scientists, and those who need to act on, or ignore, their findings. Having avoided this trap, the work places itself above the idiocy and recklessness of the people in power during the period, and positions itself as a timeless guide to the way things should be done.
The principles enunciated so clearly in the book deserve to be memorised by those charged with governing, and by those whose duty is to challenge the governors. The authors summarise:
We concluded that the key elements of the scientific method – as derived from the words of famous and pioneering scientists – could be summarized by eight criteria:
- Study important problems
- Build on prior knowledge
- Provide full disclosure
- Use objective designs
- Use valid and reliable data
- Use valid simple methods
- Use experimental evidence
- Draw logical conclusions
With the fallout of the Covid response still raining down around our ears, a few paragraphs later the authors note:
We consider that the support of meta-analyses of objective studies that collectively comply with all eight criteria for science are necessary for rational policy making. The requirement is particularly important for government laws and regulations, because they involve duress rather than voluntary transactions. [emphasis in the original]
In the case of Victoria’s experience, it would have been nice, and conventional, if the pre-existing pandemic plan had been the basis for observing criteria number 2, ‘build on prior knowledge’. Instead, gleefully exercising the power of ‘duress’, the then Chief Health Officer announced measure after measure that defied rational explanation. He even ignored ‘prior knowledge’ in the form of a paper that he himself co-authored. This paper, published in 2001, Do Anaesthetists Need to Wear Surgical Masks in the Operating Theatre? A Literature Review with Evidence- Based Recommendations, includes the statement “The evidence for discontinuing the use of surgical face masks would appear to be stronger than the evidence available to support their continued use.” For some reason, 20-odd years later, the same man, now masquerading as a CHO, issued Pandemic Orders to the effect that Victorians walking on a wind-swept beach in a 30-knot gale were breaking the law if they didn’t have a filthy cloth rag strapped to their face. If only he’d read this book.
The scope of the book includes the problems of ‘advocacy science’, journal reviews, government involvement, regulation, how to decide if a career in science is for you, how to navigate a doctoral program, and how to disseminate findings successfully. This is a hands-on guide, right down to how to structure a paper and how to prepare a talk. If I were writing a paper, I’d want this book right by my side.
Let’s imagine that all the horrors of the Covid response are behind us. This book is an invaluable guide to those scientists who are genuine in their endeavours to make a real contribution to the human condition. It gives rational advice, and experience-driven wisdom, to budding scientists trying to get published, while maintaining an ethical stance. It gives a handy guide for students considering whether they have the aptitude for a career in science. It would be a powerful cheat sheet for a politician seeking to avoid being hoodwinked into agreeing to policies that turn out to be disastrous. Along the way it educates all readers in the ways the true science can be corrupted, and how to avoid those traps, and basic errors.
Imagine if children in primary school were introduced to the criteria for good science. Imagine if the common man and woman in the street were familiar with the principles of good science as explained in this book. Imagine if the reporters for the daily newspapers and TV were hired only if they could demonstrate mastery of these ideas. Imagine further, one last leap of fantasy, that the reporters were willing to subject policy pronouncements from parliamentarians to a grilling as to the degree to which the policies were based on research that complied with the principles. Imagine that editors printed, rather than censored, the mockery from the public in the letters pages the next day. I think we would have a ruling class much less willing to chance their arm with blustering bulldust, knowing they would be a laughing stock the next morning.
This book could easily form the basis of a one-semester undergraduate course on the Scientific Method. At the very least, a series of seminars for high-school students aspiring to a career in science, could readily be constructed around this book as a text.
Perhaps that’s where we should start. Play the long game. Teach the children. Teach the principles, the basics.
Like keeping your bat close to your pads.
This article first appeared on Richard’s Substack here.