Quote of the Day: Hooray For Nerdy Details!


From Ben Goldacre, author of I Think You’ll Find it’s a Bit More Complicated Than That, a physician and author who debunks health fads and can be thought of as sort of an anti-Dr. Oz:

I think the public want nerdy details more than many in the media realize.

Preach it brother! Interviewer Julia Belluz asked Goldacre if he’d seen any progress over the past decade, and I found his answer pretty interesting:

I think the really big change has been the Internet. What was really frustrating when I first started writing [in the Guardian in 2003] was you would see mainstream media journalists and dodgy doctors and scientists speaking with great authority and hopelessly distorting research in a way that was dangerous and scaremongering. There was no way to talk back.

When I started writing the column I felt like I was talking back on behalf of this enormous crowd of disenfranchised nerds and nerdy doctors. Now with blogs, Twitter, and comments under articles, what you can see is everybody can talk back. On top of that, not only can people more easily find a platform to put things right when they’re wrong and also explain how they’re wrong and how to understand science better, but also anybody who is interested in something, who is sufficiently motivated and clueful, can go out and find out about it online. That’s an amazing thing. It wasn’t the case ten to 15 years ago. People now are now much more empowered to fight back against stupid stuff, and to read about interesting stuff.

Given that Dr. Oz and his ilk seem to be at least as popular as ever, I guess I’m not quite as optimistic as Goldacre. The problem is that the internet does help people who are “sufficiently motivated and clueful,” but that’s never been a big part of the population. And sadly, the internet is probably as bad or worse than Dr. Oz for all the people who don’t know how to do even basic searches and don’t have either the background or the savvy to distinguish between good advice and hogwash. Regular readers will recognize this as a version of my theory that “the internet is now a major driver of the growth of cognitive inequality.” Or in simpler terms, “the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter.”

In fairness, the rest of the interview suggests that Goldacre is pretty well aware that the impact of his writing is fairly limited (“I don’t think you can reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into”), and he shows a nuanced appreciation of exactly when his writing might influence a conversation here and there. The whole thing is a good read.