Greatest Hits

Compiled: February 17, 2012

I am generally nonplussed by birthdays. And I realise that blog posts about blog posts can sometimes be boring. However, as I’m an obsessive hoarder and a data geek, in this case I am going to make an exception. You see, The Science Bit is one year old today.

That’s right, it has reached the big ‘1’.

*Cue music* There have been highs, and there have been lows; vivid memories and lots of stuff that I’ve forgotten. Readership has waxed and waned, but gradually grown. Some people have been happy. Others have been bored. Millions of people have completely ignored me. But rather than dousing you with further personal reminiscences, I thought I would instead simply feed back to you a countdown of the five most read posts of the past twelve months.

A special item that I like to call…’REELING IN THE YEAR

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#5. Stop the spread of the ecological fallacy

This post, from June, concerned the partly controversial publicity campaign run in Ireland by a group called Safefood. The campaign sought to encourage men and women, young and old, to monitor their own waist circumference with a view to shrinking it below a given threshold (32 inches for women, 37 inches for men).

This was controversial because it appeared to make no allowance for the adverse impact such advice might have on people with body image problems or eating disorders. Given that drawback, it was important to establish whether or not Safefood’s advice had a sound scientific grounding. They said that it had. My post cast considerable doubt over whether that was actually the case.

Readership of this post was generally high for several weeks (it continues to attract hits), and partly spiked by a run of referrals from reddit, where it was circulated as a statistics story. You can read the post here.

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#4. Alcohol causes cancer? If you assume so, yes

In April, the British Medical Journal published findings from a research study that were widely reported as demonstrating a causal link between alcohol consumption and cancer. This was surely alarming to the very large number of people who consume alcohol on a regular basis. Virtually all media coverage promoted the interpretation that the main contribution of this study was that it established this alco-carcinogenesis link.

However, the BMJ study was actually quite different in scope to what had been described in the media. For one thing, it didn’t establish the link between drinking and cancer, it assumed the existence of the link as an introductory hypothetical premise. Which is quite different.

It would be like me deciding to write a paper on how science would change if we were to discover aliens on the moon, after which the world’s media reports that I have demonstrated the existence of lunar extraterrestrial life…

Traffic to this post was greatly boosted when it was posted as a recommendation on David Colquhoun’s widely read Improbable Science blog. DC also tweeted the post a few times.

I didn’t use that lunar ET example in the original post, and I think I might now regret it! However, you can read the original post — featuring many alternative points that are just as good — here.

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#3. “Pregnant thanks to acupuncture”

This early post from last February hit Warp Factor 9 after being featured on PZ Myers’ blog, Pharyngula (along with another early Science Bit post, “Menopause relief: Do not use if pregnant“). In fact, you can read quite a lengthy discussion of the post by the commenters over there.

It is very much a self-explanatory piece: a newspaper in Ireland reported how a previously infertile woman had become pregnant after undergoing acupuncture. Needless to say, there were a few gaps in the overall argument. Further needless to say, the newspaper had not picked up on them. My post explained why a medical miracle had not, in fact, occurred.

You can read the post (that is to say my post, not PZ Myers’) here.

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#2. How to argue illogically: Tony’s ten top tips

This post is of interest because it is so new. In fact, as it is less than two weeks old, you can still go to it now and post a comment. The fact that it has become the second most read post on The Science Bit results from a whirlwind of activity surrounding all blogospheric coverage of the underlying controversy, and was assisted by a very high rate of Facebook likes (did I say that right?).

I am almost tired of rehearsing the content of the post, a controversy that is still attracting media commentary. Let me just mumble the following: guru… psychologist…live predominantly in their heads…heart qualities…glaringly obvious…unresolved emotional defences…recently described ASD (often referred to as Asperger’s)…myth of autism…blah…blah…blah…

You get the picture. Or, rather, you can by going here.

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Some Bubbler-Unders…

That was the countdown from #5 to #2. But before we get to the top of the charts, let’s just take a moment to mention a couple of posts that were also widely read and very nearly made the top five. Back in May, there was Publish and (quite rightly) be damned, a post about controversial Psychology Today opinionista, Satoshi Kanazawa, and his delightful essay ‘Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?’. Another lurker was my post on L’Oréal’s propensity to make up science as they go along, No, you are NOT worth it. And one of my favorite posts, “Atheists die first”: CNN’s “expert” fights back, proved very popular internationally and continues to attract traffic.

And that was my attempt at a suspense-building pause.

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So then, drum roll please, because it’s time for Number One

And the most read post on The Science Bit during its nascent twelve months was (as will be obvious by now to readers with normal visual fields)…

#1. Let’s all laugh at this guy, and his ignorance

Despite first appearing last November, this post continues to attract high numbers of hits every week, making it by far the most read post on The Science Bit. It concerned a news story which had circulated the internet claiming that a local politician in Ireland thought cloudy weather would be helpful to the cloud computing industry. Following a bit of investigative journalism (i.e., Googling) on my part, I established that this was in fact a hoax story. But it was still very funny. So I blogged about it, scoping out a reasonable commentary on audience credulity.

And then something funny happened. The Daily Telegraph — an esteemed UK-based broadsheet newspaper — reported the original hoax as if it were actual news. Yep, they reported that the Irish politician had indeed made this claim about cloud computing. The fact that, within a day, the Telegraph were caught out as having fallen for a hoax was only compounded by their decision to remove the story from their website without explanation, in an apparent attempt to wipe the online record of it ever having existed. But of course, the Internet never forgets, and proof of their error is available here.

So the story developed additional and multiple layers. What started as a joke about cloud computing became an object lesson on media standards, source-checking, and censorship. That theme became a story in itself (as is set out in the comments that follow my post). And The Science Bit became the go-to reference for proof that the hoax had been definitively exposed before the Daily Telegraph had gone to press with their report.

The story ultimately reached America. Slate Magazine bloggers described how The Science Bit had scooped the Daily Telegraph, thereby heightening the Telegraph’s embarrassment. Numerous other sources covered the Telegraph dimension to the story and posted links to The Science Bit, the overall result of which being that this particular post continues to attract substantial traffic on a daily basis.

Which goes to show that with hard work, commitment, practice, extensive expertise, a sharp intellect, breathtaking insights, some delusional tendencies, and — yes — Googling (actually, principally Googling), all manner of good things can happen to deserving people.

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And now for that tricky second series…