The Media Fog of Science

Science is Not Science

"Now science is science, and we cannot blame the researchers for the way their data crunched."

Perhaps Gail Collins meant the sentence as just a rhetorical flourish in "Fat Comes in on Little Cat Feet", an amusing commentary in the NYT about the widely publicized obesity study that was also the subject of our own airy post last week, "Fat Cooties". It was may no more than a blithe segue within lighthearted commentary about a light-weight study. Aptly amused, we should maybe just move on to the next thing. But wait. Outside of the context of this editorial and study, too many people understand science exactly this way. They would take the author's statement as an acc description of science and scientists.

The title of the NYT article refers to the other study that the media focused on last week, something about a cat and people dying. The title was also apropos of Carl Sandburg's poem "Fog": "The fog creeps in on little cat feet..." Furthermore, the media creates a fog around science so that the reader can't discern why science is important or what research is relevant. Faith in this idea that "science is science", erodes understanding of science, because no, science is not science.

Obviously, few would disagree that the subject of electrical engineering is different than the subject of mechanical engineering - both EE's and ME's would readily point this out, and that the subject of physics is different than biology, and that biochemistry is different than embryology. The scientific method is intact across the fields, but the tools employed by the scientists are certainly different in different areas, as are premises, standards, assumptions and politics of the education, practice and expertise required for each discipline.

In addition to subject to subject differences, and unique methods, techniques and equipment, research differs between scientists of the same discipline. It differs experiment to experiment for the same researcher. Given consistent results, some research advances are obviously momentous, while the importance of others is not so obvious. Those working in the exact field may understand the significance of a particular experiment that other scientists, not to mention journalists and non-scientists, don't.

Vapid Vamping Vacant Science Journalism

The work of assessing research is difficult to accomplish on the time limits journalists work under. Therefore journalists often focus attention on research they glean through press releases, research that doesn't necessarily merit attention but serves as publicity for a certain institution or researcher.

Real science research competes badly with banal reports of young actresses for instance, helpless malnourished lush waifs wafting about on clouds of narcotic narcissism, money like confetti fluttering about their skinny legs and vamping, vacant, well-mascaraed eyes. Those wobbly, often misbehaving dolls perhaps aren't really humans at all but apparitions, media concoctions confected to reflect back our own collective wisdom and will -- which drifts constantly downhill.

The media needs eyes on all stories for advertising dollars, so scientists and journalists obligingly drum up science that competes with this vapidness. But science that is published because it soothes the eyes and slips down gullets easily but requires nothing of society except lurid, fleeting fascination may not really be 'science that is science' at all.

Data Does Not Crunch

Scientists, however, are probably not yet the passive actors that the quote from "Fat Comes in on Little Cat Feet" represents. They are protagonists who determine "how their data crunched".

The data does not crunch. The scientists crunch the data, after they develop a hypothesis, conceive the study, request the funding, collect the data sets, devise the statistical methods, and interpret the results. They then choose to write up the study and argue the significance of their conclusions in the paper's discussion, as well as (as is the trend), for the public affairs cameras. Therefore when the NYT author says, hopefully jokingly, "Stop sending these guys angry e-mails, people", because it's not their fault", understand that the research really is their "fault", or at least their product.

:.Stupid Science --->Stupid People

There are those that argue that science needs to be simplified for the public. They point disparagingly to stories about movie stars and bemoan the fact that Lindsay Lohan holds more sway in the news than science. Carefully crafted rhetoric and simplified science stories by scientists, they say, would sway people. I don't agree. I believe it's arrogant to judge people's disinterest as stupidity, and to suggest that scientists should be deciding policy and weaving it into their accounts of research.

Science as it is presented in the mainstream media (so many journals are subscriptions inaccessible to the general public) is simplified quite enough, thank you very much. If you were to get all your science news from the mainstream press you might think that the only definitive science research was on the subjects of chocolate, red wine, and obesity. A democracy works because people inform themselves of the issues. The public often seems to be in a fog about science, which may be for many reasons. One reason is that a lot science that we should be exposed to is passed over, while vapid reports posing as science are presented as news.

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