Friday 19 February 2010

Science gullibility

Robin Hanson notes science is accorded less critical treatment in journalism than is business or politics and wonders if it's because most folks view science as a form of prestige status than dominance status; the latter most folks find more worrying than the former.
We see politicians and businesses as threatening to dominate us and so we are eager to watch out for illicit power grabs. In contrast, we see science, arts, literature, etc. as only awarding prestige, not power, and we are less worried about illicit prestige grabs. We mainly care about prestigious stuff as ways to see who is more impressive, and a tricky “illicit” prestige grab is itself pretty impressive, so little harm done.

Also, we like some critical reporting on sports, music, and literature because we are expected to choose sides in these areas as part of our identity. We are supposed to have our favorite band, team, or author, and so we appreciate news rehearsing arguments we might offer for or against such things

But we are not supposed to have favorite position on science disputes. Science is more like our communal religion, something that distinguishes us advanced insiders from those ignorant outsiders, and we are eager to signal being part of us and not them. It is like how, aside from worrying about power-grabs by our military leaders, we are not each supposed to have a different favorite war strategy for our troops – that would be divisive and we prefer to show that we are united against them.
We'd then expect the press to become more critical where science is viewed as moving from prestige-status to dominance-status; that seems to be happening with reporting on climate change issues.

I wonder when the press will rightly start viewing public health as dominance rather than prestige. In the meantime, always check whether the reporter notes how the study addressed causality if a causal relationship is asserted. If the story doesn't ask the question, you shouldn't view the story as terribly credible.


  1. I completely disagree with the thesis, as do a lot of others, judging by the comments.

    I would agree that science reporting isn't very good; in fact as far as poor quality journalism goes it is a close second behind only medical journalism, with economics a distant third. But this is surely just because science journalism (and medical journalism and economics journalism) is harder than sports journalism, etc. Most people could watch an All Blacks game and tell you at the end of it which side won an what the score was, not many could read a science paper and give you a quick summary of what the result was. I believe that because of this the media refuses to engage in science journalism per se, and instead engages in scientist journalism; there are plenty of stories about what "the boffins" are up to, and lots of anti-elitist feel-good stories about some outsider disproving a long-standing scientific theory.

    I think that this is the real reason we are seeing critical reporting on climate change issues; not because climate science is "dominant status," but because it has a TV drama storyline, with hackers and leaked emails and clever people getting their sums wrong and nice scientists in white coats getting fired and so on.

  2. Is science journalism really that much harder than business journalism? You don't have to be an expert scientist to ask reasonable questions. In social science reporting (or med reporting), the reporters never seem to ask a very simple question: how did you establish causality. Then just keep the BS meter running to see whether the researcher admits no causal relationship, seems really nervous, or explains some plausible-sounding technique. Is that really harder than understanding what's going on in cricket? (I can't understand cricket).

    I agree that lots of "scientist rather than science" journalism goes on, and especially now on climate change. But surely there are big dramatic my-side-against-your-side science stories to be found elsewhere, and nobody much cares about them. I occasionally read Lubos Motl on string theory; it sounds like there's nearly as much dramatic tension in the fights between string and standard folks as there is on global warming, but few people much care.

    I suppose we'd need a sample of "good plot science stoushes" that vary along the prestige/dominance dimension to really test though.

  3. Hmm, I'm a bit late chiming in on this one, but couldn't resist given my sciency background.
    I wonder if the "media" aren't at times guilty of perceiving people in white coats as experts and authoritarian, and therefore not subject to critical question? It seems an odd approach to take given that questioning authority should be an integral part of journalistic pursuit, but there are few other fields where perceived expertise seems to go as unchallenged by the public as in the sciences.
    Another possibility is that questioning a scientist may lead to a diatribe of seemingly useless or esoteric information. In this age of the soundbyte I wonder if deciphering this is just too much work, and not sexy enough for the modern reporter?