« Links With Your Coffee - Saturday | Main | 4th of July Visitors »

Links With Your Coffee - Sunday

Coffee Cup

What do people do when confronted with scientific evidence that challenges their pre-existing view? Often they will try to ignore it, intimidate it, buy it off, sue it for libel, or reason it away.

The classic paper on the last of those strategies is from Lord in 1979: they took two groups of people, one in favour of the death penalty, the other against it, and then presented each with a piece of scientific evidence that supported their pre-existing view, and a piece that challenged it. Murder rates went up, or down, for example, after the abolition of capital punishment in a state, or comparing neighbouring states, and the results were as you might imagine. Each group found extensive methodological holes in the evidence they disagreed with, but ignored the very same holes in the evidence that reinforced their views.

If I was to single out one main complaint about the media from the scientific community it would be that journalists tend to be too 'balanced' - in other words, they try to give roughly equal time to opposing viewpoints even when the weight of evidence lies strongly on one side. Like 'objectivity', the concept of 'balance' is one of journalism's fundamental rules. Some suggest it is rooted in our system of parliamentary democracy and adversarial politics and works well for politics - giving equal treatment to the main political parties.

The Columbia Journalism Review summarised it rather crudely in a piece about media coverage of US elections: "The candidate makes a statement. You write it down, then you call the other side for a response. Tell us what he said, then tell us what she said, and you're covered aren't you?"

But a concept of balance that may work in politics is problematic for science - where findings must be replicated time and time again to eventually reveal where the weight of evidence lies. Or as US science writer Chris Mooney puts it: "The journalistic norm of balance has no corollary in the world of science ... where consensus builds on repeated testing and re-testing of an idea."

Can we really tell ‘genuine’ from ‘authentic’?



"Yeah well you can prove anything with science" Sounds like Homer to me - "Facts are meaningless - you could use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true!" Homer Simpson that is.

re: "yeah well you can prove anything with science." and "he says/she says/ just doesn't work for science."

As a species, it seems we have a hard time changing our minds. It's an ongoing struggle to remain open to alternative views irrespective of whether or not they are 'scientific'.

Sometimes this is because the proposed alternative view is so alien to our perceptions, beliefs or experience in the world that it seems just silly to give it any ear (except perhaps for it's entertainment value).

Giving equal time in school to Creation/Intelligent design and the Theory of Evolution might be one example. Though the Pope himself might assert that Evolution is consistent with Christian doctrine, that doesn't help religious non-Catholics who believe in literal interpretations of translated Biblical texts, since Evolution is inconsistent with a 7 day Creation. For these, scientific evidence is still just a 'theory' when compared to the literal words of God or Prophet. Further, accepting the theory of Evolution, because of the overwhelming evidence supporting it, creates that slippery slope pulling away from other literal interpretations fundamental to their belief systems. This is, I think the Anti-Science position that you rightly fuss so much about.

Another example might be the Political posture asserting that those for whom unfettered Capitalism isn't working are simply not trying hard enough, are lazy, or stupid, or spoiled. If the only people you know who are unemployed are lazy, stupid or spoiled, then it might appear reasonable to draw this conclusion. A more cynical view might simply see this as a convenient interpretation pandering to a constituent's feelings of moral superiority.

Science reporting is problematic though for another reason. That is, even when experimental methodologies are reasonably sound, the conclusions drawn from them might easily be fatally flawed by pre-conceived perceptions or by other non-scientific agendas on the part of the researcher. One example might be that study you posted a while back wherein the researchers proved they could train 9 lab canaries to prefer Conventional wheat over Organic wheat. OK so far, but then they drew a conclusion that Conventional agriculture was therefore better for
wild bird populations than Organic agriculture, and the best way to protect wild species was not ecologically sound agriculture, but instead establishment of wildlife refuges - a conclusion far beyond what was actually demonstrated. This error is easy to understand. If one spends a lot of time doing an experiment, it's natural to want to think it was an important effort. Further, such a far reaching assertion is more likely to attract media interest.

While data might not lie, the scientist is as human as the rest of us, and interpretation of data is easily affected by preconceived notions, experience and world view not to mention potential funding sources.

Another "Scientists are human too" example might be found in that interesting research you posted from Stanford regarding Green Revolution effects on Carbon Emissions, where the researchers postulated alternative world histories then compared carbon emissions of the 'real world' to them. Necessarily, the alternate worlds were envisioned from their own preconceived notions of the only other ways things might have been. The conclusions that Industrial agriculture is good for the Environment was predetermined by the structure of the study. That is, had they chosen a possible alternative world history wherein CAFE (fuel efficiency standard) improvements and conservation were aggressively pursued by Government mandates and R&D support back in Jimmy Carter's day the conclusion may well have been that the Green Revolution was cool but not terribly meaningful to Global warming issues.

Here's another one - In "Tomorrow's Table" book, an experiment is described wherein colored Indian Corn was planted, surrounded on all sides by modern high yield corn. Little drift occurred, therefore the conclusion was drawn that drift from GE corn is not really a concern to biodiversity. Land race Indian corn is several feet shorter than modern hybrids, little wind would pass the tall barriers of hybrids to blow pollen from the purple corn. The experiment was designed to maximize the probability of a desired conclusion. Of course, in the real world, planting blue corn up wind of hybrids even hundreds of feet apart, will give you blue kernels in that white corn every time. Experiments are designed to test specific hypothesis. While a successful experiment might conclude the hypothesis is proved, it may nonetheless have little significance to a broader issue.

That a conclusion is asserted by a scientist, is not prima facia evidence that it is correct, or even meaningful.

Fine Distinctions: You might convince me of your argument, but you will never persuade me to change my mind.....


Support this site

Google Ads

Powered by Movable Type Pro

Copyright © 2002-2017 Norman Jenson


Commenting Policy

note: non-authenticated comments are moderated, you can avoid the delay by registering.

Random Quotation

Individual Archives

Monthly Archives