Victorian coffee grinder

Bad Science

Victorian coffee grinder
Psst, buddy, wanna cuppa joe?

I got to thinking about this after Epidemiology class, or, literally, the “study of that which befalls people” where, for the first class, we discussed how to read scientific papers, looking for bias, and with a critical eye. She showed us a couple of videos, and although she was joking that the first one was warming us up for the second one, where the guy is speaking very fast with a strong British accent, it was also very apt in our discussion of where science knowledge comes from.

I don’t know about you, but this Monty Python sketch resonates strongly with many news programs I’ve seen over the years, and as she went on to show us Ben Goldacre’s TED talk on bad science, I started thinking about this in relation to writing science fiction.

We use our genre to stretch our understandings of humanity, and the consequences of the current scientific knowledge and practices, extrapolating outward to extremes, sometimes, although there are stories where what seemed absurd then, is not far enough, now. From Star Trek’s communicators to today’s cell phones, for instance.

But how to make sure we avoid bad science? First of all, I suspect most of our readers here at MGC are ornery enough not to take what’s presented on the news, or even most science journals and magazines, at face value. Staying tapped into the superficial sources is important, though, because there is where most of your readers are getting their information. Knowing what misconceptions people have can make adding science to your fiction interesting, as you could, say, work into the story a character who was getting it all wrong… and having them set straight by the right stuff.

Evaluating papers and articles is an art unto itself. Here’s an article Amanda sent me last night: “In so far as heeding the call for more research, the scientific community is beginning to wake up and smell the coffee. Last spring, the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized Caffeine Use Disorder as a health concern in need of additional research in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders — the standard classification of mental disorders, now in its fifth edition (DSM-5), used by mental health professionals in the United States.”  Which made me scratch my head. Caffeine dependence is a disorder, now? If you follow the link at the bottom to the paper the article is built around, you find that there is a whole Journal of Caffeine Research. Who knew?

Suddenly I picture a world where caffeine is outlawed, and only outlaws own Mr. Coffee’s, and Some Dude on the Corner whispers, “hey, man, Earl Grey, or Chai?” And there you are, hard science… or soft science, depending on how you feel about the DSM-5 and all it’s related controversies. But it’s easy to do this with any number of articles and papers, this just happened to hit my funny bone.

However, when you are trying to do serious research, make sure the institution the paper comes from is reputable. Check to see if it is a research paper, a review paper, or what. Read carefully, looking for the big question the researchers are trying to answer, this will sometimes reveal a bias whether they were conscious of it, or not. Make notes, and if you have time, try to find more than one point of data, rather than relying on a single paper. Yes, we may be writing fiction, not a school paper, but if we are to avoid bad science, we need to be serious about our research.

I’m gearing up for plunging back into a world where the entire galactic civilization was brought low by a plague. More specifically, a fungal parasite. So I am reading about epidemiology and pandemics, outside of class, and tucking all sorts of odd data into my brain. I never know what I will need, as I am constructing the story, and it’s a fascinating topic for me, personally. So it’s not exactly a painful experience.

Have fun with it. Enjoy your research, and that will spill into your work. And remember, don’t commit message fiction. A basis of solid science is important, but the only people who read screeds are people who already agree with them. Story comes first, and character, and the science is like the bones to give it structure. No one wants to see your bones hanging out, skin and hair and eyes are much more attractive, and that is the story.

So build a beautiful story.


  1. Hello Ms. Cedar,
    Your post is enlightening as it is frightening. I have often wondered why so many drugs coming to market end up being yanked a few years later with lots of ensuing lawsuits. Weren’t the prescribing doctors given all the facts? Now it’s clear to me that (in at least some cases) these medical professionals were purposely given skewed data so pharmaceutical companies could sell more products.

    I know the drug cos. aren’t the only ones. My 8-yr-old is joining his 12-yr-old brother in dissecting commercials about the latest and greatest product that you ‘can’t do without’. The weight loss/exercise equipment ads are particularly devoid of facts.

    Now I really understand an undercurrent of skepticism I have witnessed in the medical community. When I asked my kids’ pediatrician his opinion about a ‘new’ drug he mentioned a concept that he and most of his colleagues follow: “Wait 3 years before prescribing a new medication to your patients. For family members, wait 5.” He explained that while many drugs are tested for safety in the short term, that long term use can catch problems that a shorter study can’t. And I already knew that most replacement treatments are tested against a placebo (the whole determine safety/effectiveness thing) instead of against the actual drug they could replace.

    At one point I actually dragged my non-math brain to compute the benefits of a new antibiotic against an old standby. Took me about an hour to translate the different ratios of effectiveness into relative terms to each other. Then I ran the figures by a math-geek friend of mine to check my numbers because I didn’t believe my calculations. The difference between the new and old bug-buster (if I remember correctly) was a whopping 2.7% for a 7-day course. Not counting drug-resistance, I’m not sure why I would spend $80+ for a new drug when an old $7 generic is available.

    Anyhoo, sorry to babble. Great point about keeping science real to help your writing Ms. Cedar!


    1. Nah the bit about the drug companies being sued is as much about people not LISTENING[or bothering to read the fine print], and then acting all shocked and shaken when one of the listed side effects hits them or a friend or family member like a brick to the head. It also has to do with *sneer* lawyers. Do you watch regular morning TV? Seriously? watch how many law firm, lawsuit driven commercials are on? It’s fracking ridiculous. We graduate 5000 new ones every year. They have to make money to justify heir education, their existence and keep them [in the case of partners in big law firms] paid. Now as for long term testing? the Pedi is probably right in so far as it goes. Where kids are concerned. But consider…it takes a minimum of a decade and billions of dollars to get just one drug to market.
      interesting article this one, from a couple years ago.

      And the Pharma Co.s for all peoples thinking that they are evil…really aren’t. they are just big business.

      As far as cost? the new wunder drug versus the $7 generic? Considering the rate at which more and more common diseases are mutating to become anti biotic resistant?

      1. Thank you, Sean, you saved me a lot of typing.

        Another point: No drug is 100% safe. They ALL have side effects, with those of many drugs including Death. Just a couple of years ago, the makers of Alka-Seltzer Cold & Sinus medication were sued by people apparently too stupid to read the ingredients and see that it contained Acetaminophen, because they wound up getting higher than the daily safe dosage limit and damaged their livers. The result? Now the Alka-Seltzer Cold & Sinus is not made with Acetaminophen, only Aspirin. Which means that my wife can no longer use it if she needs to, because that thins her blood too much,in conjunction with her other medications, and her hemorrhoids start bleeding. Unfortunately, too many people have an attitude of, “Well, if I get hurt, I can just sue.” (Yes, I have heard these words in person. In my case, it was when warning someone not to step in front of an oncoming car.)

        1. Heard a suggestion the other day that I really like, in view of how much the FDA is spending re-doing approvals for drugs that are suddenly having erratic effects…. make the FDA only do “this will not harm X group, that we’ve found” certification. Wasn’t the whole reason they came about the Children of Thalidamide? (less kindly, “seal babies.”)

          I can’t get the right kind of baby medicine because some idiot woman gave her child several entire bottles and “accidentally” killed him.

          Don’t get me started on the “if I get hurt doing something incredibly dumb, I’ll sue them” mindset– I see it in bicyclists. And folks will defend the idiot running a stop light, because he’s risking more harm than the folks in the car!

    2. SheBear, the other thing is pharmaceutical tests are run on a limited population with set controls, for obvious reasons. There is enough difference between different ethnic groups, age groups and other things “in the wild,” then you may discover that Drug X is fantastic for African-American women, but not so effective for descendents of Ashkenazi Jews, for example, and it can cross-react with Drug L in patients with [condition other than what Drug X treats]]. Or vice versa. So four years after Drug X is released, you start getting lawsuits about it not being effective, or causing problems. Is it the drug company’s fault? Maybe. Maybe not.

      1. They’re starting to compile data bases that match your genetics to the drugs you’re taking. We had the testing done and added to the records of my youngest who is on depression and anxiety meds and reacted badly to a relatively low dose of zoloft.

        Reactions and results are matched back to your gene test so that they can continue to refine the databases.

    3. All medicines are poisons. Toxicity is in the dose. The harmless panacea is a lie as far as modern medicinal chemistry goes.

      How the thing can help at one dose is exactly related to how it will hurt at a higher one.

      A drug with horrible side effects that keeps worse symptoms under control can still be a net benefit.

      The current level of required testing for effectiveness and toxicity, combined with low hanging fruit and some other things, may make development of new drugs economically unfeasible. At least, the matter is in question and not a clear cut yes or no.

      If one has a compelling need for treatment, by all means, maybe consider something new. If old drugs or no drugs are serving well enough, there are grounds to, as you say, wait for more use and hence more testing. Statistical sampling is no more perfect and never failing than anything else done by human hands.

    4. Part of it is that the “old” drug doesn’t work for some people, or vice versa. I don’t care how “effective” Naproxen (Aleve) is, _I_ am severely allergic. Until we have genetically tailored drugs, some always work better than alternatives. BTW, on a side note. “Generics are *chemically* equivalent, not necessarily the same structure and effectiveness.

  2. Caffiene addiction isn’t a mental disorder…it’s a physical addiction for crying out loud. geeez.

      1. Interestingly, I find I CAN quit any time. I have gone for weeks at a time without caffeine, without trying to “quit”, I just stopped drinking caffeinated drinks for a while. This is from a person who normally drinks nearly a half gallon of coffee per day. I don’t know why, but I don’t get any symptoms, other than needing more sleep and not being quite as alert before 10:00AM.

        1. Are you one of those people whom caffeine calms down, rather than makes jittery? I’ve heard speculation that the different ways our brains respond to caffeine related to whether we get addicted.

          1. Generally, yes. If I drink too much, too fast, it will make me jittery, but normal quantities help keep me calmer. It’s one reason I think I have undiagnosed ADHD.

  3. My maybe too-short-to-be-a-story in editing had a section where, in hindsight, I figured the scientific bones of the story were showing too much, and I’d let the desire for message overcome me. After the recent vigorous discussion, I decided I owed it to myself to trim the unneeded stuff out.

    1. Sometimes it is a hard call to make. But while you can get away with more showing in a hard SF story, a space opera is more about the inter-relationships than the science, for instance. And nonsense, if it has a beginning, middle, and end, it’s a story.

    2. Make a “background” section.

      Pull everything that you don’t absolutely need out of the story, and then have an apendix for the bones.

      Kind of like those fantasy books that have all the gods, their relationships and portfolios in the back, and a world map in the front.

  4. I’ve been reading up on memory forensics lately. ‘What if this were people and not computers?’

      1. I was told that if you find a story that wants you to login, try searching for it on Google, because they have a requirement that any link they put in their search results be public. I don’t know if the url that you wind up at is any different, though. Try searching “new truths that only one can see”.

  5. The entire academic system is a minefield, the credibility of which is at least partially undermined by the “publish or perish” mentality. Add to this the fact that scientific bias begins well before a hypothesis is even postulated and I often question whether it’s worth opening any of the major scientific journals.

    The most important factor in research is money, without which nothing would happen. Agencies direct money at finding answers to questions through science. Quite often they have a preferred answer in mind and they will direct more money toward a scientific body that is producing the kind of results the agency would like to achieve. It doesn’t really matter whether that line of research is on the right track, or will produce the most efficient answer to the problem, it’s about achieving the preferred result. This is bad science and in this respect most (non-university because universities are awesome, right?) government-funded research is bad because all governments have agendas.

    Furthermore, almost gone is the chance for a small researcher or research team to have a breakthrough discovery recognised by a major journal. This is because all major works published these days must reference the megalithic body of work which has gone before. A genuine breakthrough discovery utilising new techniques which at once leapfrogs and disproves previous lines of research (usually the research published by those same major journals) would simply bring into question too much of what has gone before, annoy too many respected experts, and highlight the wastage of money that has all been spent to achieve the wrong kinds of answers.

    If you want to find out about the really interesting kinds of things that can be done by avoiding the inertia of the mainstream scientific juggernaut, I’d look at reputable fringe journals, and even some of the less reputable ones.

    1. I’ll grant you that a few, very prominent bad apples (Anthropogenic Global Warming, for example) it’s all about the desired result and funding–but they had to work very hard at circumventing the normal scientific process to do it. I was a research scientist for over ten years, published many papers in reputable journals, and was a peer reviewer for one of them. Trust me when I say that after making a brand new discovery, the thing scientists like most is proving another scientist wrong 😉 We publish our findings as a contribution and a dare. Other researchers will try and incorporate our findings and go further (thus confirming or denying them). The huge pile of references at the end of a paper are not merely “referencing work that went before”–or you would run out of paper. They are our shorthand to the critics, saying, “Before you bother, yes I DID read that paper and pay attention to the next graph, because I blow their work out of the water with it”. With skill, what looks like a nice proper citation is actually the scientific version of a knife fight 😀

      Fringe journals are fringe not because there is a Grand Conspiracy to keep truly new discoveries from happening, but because real science requires reproducible proof. The AGW folks cooked up a self-licking ice-cream cone by only allowing “believers” to contribute to their journals, reviewing each other’s papers, and refusing to share their data after publishing said papers. All not good scientific behavior.

      1. I agree with some of what you say but I suppose my main point is not about incremental advances within a field of research. That’s fine and it’s what the current system allows for. What I’m talking about is the breakthrough discovery that changes everything.

        1. But what exactly is a breakthrough discovery that changes everything?

          The more significant it must be, the rarer the historical examples we can point to.

          One confounding factor is that some of these historical examples may have been dependent on changes in human systems, outside of the scope of directed scientific endeavor. Expecting a scientific research establishment alone to influence that may be unreasonable.

          Another is the question of whether there must be a bottomless well of ‘fruit on the tree’. Is there a law of physics that tells us that we always will be able to find new phenomena to exploit?

        2. IMO the “fun” involving a “breakthrough discovery that changes everything” is that such a discovery has to “explain” everything that the old discoveries did as well as showing where the old discoveries were wrong.

          Einstein’s theories didn’t contradict much of the earlier theories (for most things Newton’s theories still work) but did explain things that were causing problems with the older theories.

          People were looking for a planet inside Mercury’s orbit because Mercury’s orbit didn’t behave as the existing theories predicted (look up the planet Vulcan besides Spock’s home world).

          Einstein’s theories explained Mercury’s orbit without an extra planet.

          For that matter, Einstein suggested how to test one of his ideas which people used to see if his idea was correct.

          All the tests of Einstein’s theories have shown that they are generally correct.

          Any “breakthrough discovery” that shows Einstein’s theories were wrong in a major degree will need plenty of evidence.

    2. An excellent example is the “stem cell debate.” To _my_ knowledge, NO successful embryonic stem cell experiment has EVER occurred. All have been using NON-embryonic, but the media/establishment, won’t admit it. Now, they have a way to _make_ non-embryonic stem cells. Anyone want to believe that the “embryonic stem cell” side will quit? (Hint: don’t hold your breath.)

      1. That’s right, massive advances do occur and can happen quite quickly and often be almost accidental. Getting them accepted is always the issue. Charles Darwin had a hell of a time getting the Royal Society to accept ideas we take fro granted now, and things haven’t really changed much since then.

        A methodolgy paper will appear in the journal Planetary and Earth Science Letters this year detailing a new method of maping the trace-element chemistry of the Earth’s oceans over time. This will lead on to follow-up papers on how variations in trace elements in the oceans relate to mass extinctions. The findings are pretty amazing, but because the results were basically a side-effect of using a new technology, it’s been very difficult for the research team involved to get any traction.

        Finally things seem to be looking up though. We’ll see…

  6. Hello again everyone, some quick responses if y’all will indulge me.

    Sean–I totally agree with you that people don’t read and that they may even put their life (or that of a family member) at risk for not doing so. The pharmacist and the other staff that most drug stores have on hand to help customers can be a valuable resource.
    I did mention antibiotic resistance in my post. And one of the biggest problems leading to that, is (once again) folks aren’t following directions for when and how to take them or demanding them when antibiotics aren’t appropriate. (Don’t get me started on antibiotics in animal feed…) I do find it fascinating that the countries with the least antibiotic resistance are the ones using hardly any antibiotics (including in soaps and other cleaning products).

    Wayne–I do wish that more people would really weigh the benefits of a drug before they consume it. Or a ‘natural alternative’ that also can have major consequences even though it is ‘natural’. I HAVE to, I have a really wonky metabolism that responds weird to a lot of stuff, including caffeine. One cup of coffee can keep me up for about 3 days and give me heart palpitations for a week afterwards. (I have a better tolerance than I used to-its not a candy bar or a 1/4 cup of coffee anymore. Really wish I was kidding.)

    TXRed. I understand ‘small’ short-term studies can’t tell what a drug is going to do to a larger demographic. As you mentioned, no one really can. I just have to hope in the best of people and that those in drug cos. do have the best intent towards their consumers–they are short-sited to say the least if they don’t. Unfortunately, the few crooks out there do a lot of damage. But I can’t believe in a “Johnny Mnemonic” scenario. It hurts too much. (My cynical spouse just sighs and gently pats my head.)

    Bob–I do understand that it is expensive to develop drugs. The counter-argument (which I am NOT making since “I am an egg”) I have seen depends on whether or not you believe the source. For example, a recent headline in the Huffington Post stated that drug cos spend “19 times more on self-promotion than basic research”. Too many variables on both sides of the argument for me to assess there since I have neither the time or knowledge to fully investigate which side is closer to the truth. That’s why I like boards/places like this where I can take in the opinions of folks way more experienced and smarter than me.

    Happy researching and writing all (I think I’ve avoided my homework long enough!)

    1. The question is, how expensive?

      There is some contention over the matter.

      One matter in dispute is what exactly qualifies as drug development.

      There is a school of thought that the main matter is finding a target.

      There is another school of thought, that the additional tasks of finding substances that will hit the target, toxicity screening, and scaling up production are not trivial.

      If you really want to know more, Derek Lowe at is more expert and interested than I am, and at the very least has some solid writing on important questions.

      I tend to buy the case, made by him, and I think others, that the finances of the big pharma companies alone speak to some probable issues.

      I don’t know that I’d necessarily object to the size of the marketing budget alone. It presumably has a positive ROI, meaning not spending on marketing would eventually amount to not having that money and more.

      I’ve no confidence that every journalist must have the background in finance or science for the analysis needed to have anything to say.

      I wouldn’t say that everything from the Huffington Post, the National Enquirer, the New York Times, et al, is entirely without value. Even a certain university’s student rag, which I had little respect for, had value in the crossword puzzle and such.

  7. I tend to get lost following fascinating links when researching.

    Then I have all this stuff I “know” and don’t need to research later . . . except I’d better, because what was cutting edge two years ago may be the usual practice now, or a disproven dead end.

      1. Yep. I think that’s why the specialties are getting sliced so thin. There’s so much information out there that staying up to date on a broad subject area is impossible. Especially if you need to also get some work done.

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