Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Nerd Analysis: Thoughts on Science Vs. Journalism

Very interesting blog post here about the dangers of emotion-driven "reporting" in science. Here is a blurb:
A major new idea, one which overturns an existing, well-supported theory, does not get established in one paper. There has to be follow up and debate, and if the idea holds up to scrutiny it will be accepted.

Beware the underdog narrative in science journalism. This narrative severely misrepresents how science really works. It's designed to elicit our sympathy for a not-yet-established theory, maybe one that is socially attractive, and to arouse our indignation against the staid community of eggheaded scientists. This underdog narrative plays on our emotions, it makes for a good read, and helps us feel good about ourselves when we stand up for our convictions.

What gets lost is the scientific method, the idea that novel proposals need to be thoroughly vetted and tested, no matter how intuitively attractive they are. That vetting process is done by a dynamic community of smart, educated, competitive people, who care passionately about science. It's a community where everyone wants to come up with the next big theory that overturns long-held beliefs. But that's hard to do, especially in fields where all the low-hanging fruit has been picked over by really talented people for decades or centuries. If a new theory is being presented in the media as the centerpiece of an underdog narrative, you can bet the farm that this theory is not yet sufficiently substantiated by the evidence. That doesn't mean it's wrong necessarily, but it does mean that the hypothesis has not yet met the rigorous standards of evidence that have served science well for centuries.


Anonymous said...

First off, of course I agree with the author that the underdog narrative here is misleading, and that the scientific community is very good at vetting new ideas, etc. No quarrels there.

However, when he says science has been working this way for centuries, he's wrong. Science as we know it today hasn't been around for centuries. Sure, Robert Boyle was doing experiments with air pumps in the 17th century, but the process of vetting, etc., that we have today wasn't around then. E.g., back then the social status of both experimenter and those to whom he demonstrated his results to were key in the acceptance of the new theory, something we wouldn't tolerate today. (They were all gentlemen, and you could trust a gentleman's word, right?) The word 'scientist' didn't even exist until the 1830s. It was all 'natural philosophy,' 'natural theology,' or 'natural history' until then, and their methods, while in many ways similar, were in some ways quite different.

The reason I object to this historical fiction is that he uses it to build authority for his argument: If it's worked for 'centuries,' then it must work, right? Well, it does work, but not because it's been tested for centuries, but rather that the scientific method itself has evolved and changed and in the late 19th century we seem to have hit upon a formula that really works quite well. This is another fiction, that the scientific method itself never changes, that it's been the same from Aristotle through Galileo right up to the present. Because, of course, if it has changed in the past, it might change again in the future, and that undercuts the authori-TAI of science. (Cartman, is that you?)

Anyway, historian of science (in training) and whatnot, had to comment. Hey, is that a biology field notebook? Well, gotta go. Tally ho!

Mad Minerva said...

Good point, lumpenscholar -- though I'm sure that's a deceptive name and that you're not lumpen at all!

The original thrust of the argument, though, about the underdog narrative still holds mainly true, I think. The scientific method took a long time to come into the form we recognize it, and I think we may be selling it short a bit when we criticize it too much fo rnot being perfect from the very beginning...

Anonymous said...

Yep, I think you're right. I didn't intend to criticize the scientific method for not being perfect from the beginning, and I certainly agree with the point about the underdog narrative. Everything changes over time, but for a century or so there's been this strange notion that science has always been the same. It hasn't, and that was my main point.

The reason I think it's an important point is that this kind of rhetoric of science has often been used to argue for very questionable social changes, e.g., destroying a religion or passing eugenics laws, and it will probably be used to argue for similarly questionable things in the future. So, evil crusader and all-around killjoy that I am, I try to address this wherever I can.


On the name, well, I do sometimes _feel_ that it's my place in the Ivory Tower ...