Complex scientific concepts explained using only the thousand most used words in the English language. Can you meet the 'up-goer five' challenge by describing your job and research? Try the Up-Goer Five Text Editor and submit your entry below!
“When we are sick we need help to get better. But how do we know if the thing we used really did help us? Let’s say you have two things you think will help people who are sick, and you want to know which is the best. This problem is easy and fun to fix, but it took a long time for people to work out the right way to do it.
Take, say, two hundred people who are sick with the same thing, and put them into two groups. For each person, put them in one group or the other by chance alone: you should have no control over who goes in each group. This is to make sure that both groups are the same, on all the things you care about, like how sick they are, or whether they have a good chance of getting better.
Now, you have your two things that you think will help the sick people get better. Give one to the people in group one, and the other to the people in group two. If you can, it’s a really good idea to make sure that the sick people don’t know which group they are in, or what they are having to make them get better. The same is true for the people working on the problem. This is for a good reason: we have found that people get better faster when they think they have been given something that works well to make them feel better, even if they haven’t really.
Now: you know what is wrong with your sick people, so you know how long it will take for them to get better. Wait a while, and then look and see if people get better faster (or more better!) in group one, or group two. This will tell you which of the things that you did helped people the most.
Looking at a big number of sick people will help you to be sure that you have got the right answer. If you have friends who have tried the same idea, you can add their numbers to your numbers and get an even clearer idea of what works best. Don’t let anyone hide their numbers!”
Ben Goldacre, I’m a doctor/researcher and I write about problems in science.