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“He didn’t consult…”

31 December, 2008

This post is rather off-topic, except in the tangential sense of commenting on other people’s comments on pseudomathematics.

While grazing aimlessly through old bookmarks and links, I ended up at this post on BadScience. I greatly admire and enjoy Goldacre’s columns, not just because of their stance but because of the apparent care and propriety taken in his arguments. Nevertheless, I think he has been a bit hasty in his analysis of the article in question.

Not, I must emphasise, in his judgment on the article, which is meretricious and trashy, so much so that I can’t be bothered to add to the scorn already poured on what must have been a measly throwaway item even for The Sun. What’s irked me a little is this jump to conclusions:

This is, of course, part of a crap effort to sell a presumably crap book by an apparently crap mathematician who I shall not name, partly in protest at the crass way he makes a big fuss about doing maths at Cambridge (congratulations), and partly because it seems to me that he can’t do basic arithmetic.

Well, since the man in question is named in the article I don’t have any qualms in linking. But, as is pointed out by this commenter, it seems unlikely that Hartston would endorse this kind of bullshit in anything more than a throwaway gesture. Moreover, the same comment points out that the book attributed to Hartston is about 20 years old; and the article is careful to never actually claim that Hartston has any involvement with the risible “formula” in question, beyond being asked for an opinion on it. Goldacre’s apparent belief that Hartston actually chose how the Sun presented his credentials –of which, see later — seems odd, coming from someone who has actually had to deal with the media.

Nevertheless, it irks me that some one so beloved of science-bloggers and internet geeks didn’t recognize the name, nor checked it on Wikipedia. I mean, this isn’t “Mathematician William Hartston, who holds an MA in Maths from Cambridge University”. This is Bill m*******cking Hartston, arguably once the strongest English chess player of his generation (see here for a partial but entertaining account, albeit embedded in a longer diatribe against a more celebrated English chess great). Not a bad author, if some of his chess books and columns are anything to go by; and presumably someone who worked as an industrial psychologist would have a reasonably well-developed bullshit-detector when it comes to cargo-cult mathematics.

It could, of course, still be the case that Hartston has not been misquoted or misreported, and has genuinely come to believe that encouraging such tripe as a “formula for naughtiness” is a far, far better thing that he does, than he has ever done. But a hasty reading of an article in The Sun isn’t in itself sufficient evidence to condemn him.

edit 2010-10-18: fixed missing link to the Kingpin article.

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