Wednesday, July 23, 2014

DG XI: 'Doctor' Gillian McKeith

If you want to know how bad things are, you have to take a look at "Doctor’* Gillian McKeith. More precisely, you have to take a look at Doctor Ben Goldacre taking a look at 'Doctor'* Gillian McKeith.

... the form of McKeith’s pseudo-academic work is superficially correct ... but the substance is lacking.
Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, Harper Perennial (2009)

And this is the problem: when chessers write about chess and dementia it isn’t even that good.

A couple of weeks ago - DG IX: Guioco Piano - I mentioned that I’d recently stumbled across the existence of FIDE’s Social Action Chess Commission and a SACC report which included a section on chess and dementia. While the involvement of Doctor Robert Friedland, a bona fide researcher in the field, was welcome news, much less a cause for celebration was the way FIDE chose to report  the good Doctor’s work. 

The tragedy of FIDE’s Social Action Committee report is not so much that it plumbs the depths of standards reached by a pretend 'Doctor' off the tellybox. It’s that the report actually represents a step forward by the usual standards of our 'community'.

Doctor? Who?
(photograph from: The Guardian)

If you don’t know who 'Doctor'* Gillian McKeith is, here’s a brief bio (all details from Goldacre’s Bad Science)

  • She’s the author of dozen or more books about nutrition;
  • She used to have a TV programme on Channel 4 (may still do for all I know);
  • Her PhD comes from a non-accredited correspondence college;
  • She used to present herself as a Doctor (e.g.) until she was the subject of a successful complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority;
  • She claimed 'professional membership' of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants (and may still do for all I know);
  • Doctor Ben Goldacre’s dead cat was also able to obtain 'professional membership' of the AANC.

So far so amusing. The real story for us today is the following passage in Doctor Ben Goldacre’s book:-

... the scholarliness of her work is a thing to behold. She produces lengthy documents that have an air of 'referenciness', with nice little superscript numbers, which talk about trials, and studies, and research, and papers ... but when you follow the numbers, and check the references, it’s shocking how often they aren’t what she claimed them to be in the main body of the text, or they refer to funny little magazines and books, such as Delicious, Creative Living, Healthy Eating, and my favourite, Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet, rather than proper academic journals. 
... the form of McKeith’s pseudo-academic work is superficially correct: the superscript numbers are there, the technical words are scattered about, she talks about research and trials and findings - but the substance is lacking.

Let’s take a moment to be clear. Kasparov claiming the existence of "many studies" - Doctor Garry is In - when no such research exists is not doing pretend science, it’s simply bullshitting. Similarly, Michael Ciamarra writing, and Chessbase publishing, "studies have shown", "according to a variety of scientific studies", "the breakthroughs of science" and "a study of older people" without giving a reference to a single one of those 'studies' - DG X: Making a Difference - is the very opposite of look and feel of science.

Pretend science is doing this,

and then not following through.

With apologies for the many, perhaps even most, of our readers for whom this is all too familiar, let’s go back to Making a Difference to see how the grownups do it. If you want to provide a reference in the text you either use a superscript number1 or write NAME OF AUTHOR and YEAR OF PUBLICATION in brackets. If there are many authors you just put the first one followed by 'et al'.

It makes no difference which method you choose. Doctor Ben Goldacre wrote about superscript numbers. In Making a Difference they chose to use the brackets method. It looks like this:-

What the "(Spector et al 2003)" in the second line means is simply,

The justification for what Ive just said can be found in a journal article or book written by this author published in this year.

Whether you used the superscript number or brackets method, you have to do one more thing. In Making a Difference it looks like this:-

Somewhere you have to give the full reference. It doesn’t matter if you do it at the end of the page or the end of your piece of writing, but you must put it somewhere. For exactly the same reasons as outlined last week.

If you don’t take the second step, you really might as well not bother with the first. And for reasons best known to themselves, FIDE, SACC and Beatrice Marinello - as you can see the report goes out under her name - don't walk the walk.

I dare say that unlike 'Doctor'* Gillian McKeith’s work, if you were to follow-up the references given in SACC’s report you would find that they are entirely appropriate. That’s somewhat beside the point, though. The issue is that SACC have chosen not to facilitate that research. That's a decision that’s rather concerning whether or not you have an interest in "inter hemispheric communication", "network interactions" or the "Deactivation of default mode network".

FIDE chose to follow the form of scientific method - the partial references, the technical words and phrases - and yet they failed with the substance. They didn’t give the full references so the partial references have no function. The worry is that FIDE/SACC/Marinello don’t seem to realise that.

Or maybe they do. The really troubling scenario is that those partial references have precisely the function that FIDE intended.

In the comments box to DG X, Ian Kingston wrote,

Quacks will often cite journal articles knowing that they contradict their claims, but trusting that looking sufficiently 'sciencey' will be enough to convince people.

'Doctor'* Gillian McKeith may or may not deserve the label of 'quack' but she certainly grasped the importance presenting her work with the look and feel of science. The telly and the books made  her gazillions.

As for the substance of that work? Well, Doctor Ben Goldacre documents numerous occasions when 'Doctor'* Gillian McKeith is full of shit. Ironic that, given her subject is nutrition, but there you are.

Was FIDE's pretend science caused by ignorance, lack of care or a cynical attitude that there’s no need for the hassle of substance when the pretence will do just as well? I don’t know the answer to that one. Neither am I sure which of those would be the least depressing explanation. What I do know is that doing it right - providing the reality as as well the appearance of scientific method - is not difficult. It just requires motivation and a bit of effort. Which is why it’s rather troubling that FIDE didn’t manage to do it, I suppose.

So very much not a great effort from FIDE, but, all that said, it remains true that the SACC report is nevertheless a notch above the normal chessic standard. Yes FIDE mimicked the pretend science of a pretend 'Doctor' from telly’s Channel 4, but at least it did pretend. As we saw last week - DG X: Making a Difference - the chess world rarely bothers its arse even to do that.

Chess and Dementia Index

* "or, to give her full medical title: Gillian McKeith" - Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, page 112

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