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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pom-Pom Journalism of the Mainstream Science Writers

There is a certain viewpoint about US Presidents and military actions that cheerleaders for the President and the military like to present. The viewpoint is a kind of rose-colored viewpoint that is highly idealized. Below are some of the ideas that we might find in such a viewpoint.
  1. The President of the US always acts as a benevolent or fair figure who metes out kindness or justice to foreign nations.
  2. If a US president ever decides to take military action against a foreign nation, it is because he was forced into such an action, and such a nation (or people in it) deserved such a response.
  3. The US president never authorizes or continues military actions mainly or largely because such actions might benefit himself, his friends, or his party.
  4. Once the US military has been ordered to engage in military action, they engage in this violent activity with great reluctance, and take great care to minimize enemy deaths and civilian deaths.
  5. The military acts to keep any military engagement as brief as possible, and keep US soldier deaths to a minimum.

But sadly a great deal of historical evidence argues against this idealized outlook, and favors a more realistic outlook. If you take a close historical examination of the US military actions in places such as Vietnam, Iraq, Cambodia, and the Philippines, you might adopt a very different perspective with some of these ideas:

  1. The President of the US often initiates or continues military action largely for selfish reasons, to benefit himself, his campaign donors, or his political party – partially to make himself look strong or decisive or heroic, in a way that improves his election prospects, and partially to help corporate interests that may contribute to his re-election campaign.
  2. A US president may decide to order US military force when no such action is forced on him, and no such action is deserved by the nation that suffers from the military action.
  3. Once they are ordered into action, a very tiny fraction of the soldiers in the US military may proceed with excessive brutality, having little concern for civilian casualties.
  4. Rather than trying to minimize the damage and deaths in the country under attack, some untypical members of the military may attempt with relish to maximize such damage and deaths.
  5. In some cases, members of the US military may act to prolong or escalate a war, for doubtful reasons such as vengeance, achieving a more resounding victory, terrifying the enemy into subjugation, proving the prowess of particular weapon systems, or justifying the sacrifice of those already dead.
  6. Some untypical officers in the military may recommend particular attacks for dubious reasons such as winning medals, getting promotions, demonstrating their executive prowess, or testing their pet theories.

There is a great contrast between these two viewpoints. Just as it possible to view the activity of the US president and the military in two very different ways (one idealized and another more realistic), it is possible to view the activities of scientists in two different ways: one viewpoint that is very idealized and another viewpoint that is much more realistic. It is much more common for people to be exposed to the idealized, rose-colored viewpoint about scientific activity. Below are some of the ideas of this viewpoint:

  1. Scientists are people who judge truth in the same disinterested and dispassionate way that judges or jurors consider court cases.
  2. A scientist's statements on a scientific question are always dictated entirely by the relevant facts, and such statements are not heavily influenced by the scientist's ideology or by selfish considerations having to do with the scientist's economic interests or career prospects.
  3. Scientists are very careful about only making statements that are warranted by facts and observations.
  4. When a theory gains popularity among scientists, it is always because a great mass of evidence has accumulated showing that such a theory is very probably true.
  5. Unlike people in religion, scientists do not believe on the basis of authority.

The viewpoint above is a kind of an idealized rose-colored viewpoint that puts scientists on a pedestal, and attributes to them a kind of intellectual virtue that few humans have. There is a more realistic viewpoint you can have about scientists and scientific activity. Below are some of the ideas of that viewpoint:

  1. While most of the assertions of scientists are well supported by observations or evidence, it is also very common for scientists to assert claims that are not well supported by observations and evidence, particularly speculative theories that have gradually spread among scientist communities through a kind of bandwagon effect, a social contagion effect.
  2. Scientists often describe as “science” or “scientific” doubtful claims that are not actually science in the strictest sense, because they have not been well established by observations or experiments.
  3. Because there are very strong financial and professional penalties for being a “renegade” scientist who disagrees with the majority on some topic, scientists are under strong peer-pressure to conform to community norms of belief, even when such norms are unwarranted.
  4. Conformism and yielding to authority are very strong factors influencing scientific assertions, with scientists being under great pressure to conform to the opinions of revered scientific authority figures, living and dead.
  5. There is great overconfidence and hubris among many scientists, who often claim to understand things they don't understand, partially because such assertions enhance their prestige or the prestige of their group, making it appear they have a topic mastery that is not actually possessed.
  6. There are many problems in current science practice, including excessive jargon and obfuscation, research results that very often are never reproduced, and excessive hype of marginal results.

To do intelligent science journalism, a writer should at least occasionally take a viewpoint like the second of these viewpoints. Such a viewpoint involves some of the sociological insight that is needed for realistic analysis. But such a critical perspective is very rarely taken by our mainstream science writers, who seem to almost always be taking “looking up from under the pedestal” viewpoints toward the modern scientist. These pom-pom writers seem to act more like cheerleaders than journalists.

Let us imagine a country in which the press reported uncritically the assertions of the government. In this country, each time the leader of a country stated something, it would be reported as gospel truth by the press. In this country when some group of government officials such as a Senate committee came to a decision, the journalists would report that decision as if it were something that could scarcely be doubted. And whenever a president wanted to start a war, the press would publish the White House spin without criticism. Now clearly in such a country the press would not be doing its proper job. The proper job of the press is to not to just report what authorities in power are saying, but to subject such claims to critical scrutiny.

Thankfully we do not live in a country with a press that is a lap-dog to authorities in government. But we do live in a country where the press is pretty much a lap-dog to authorities in academia. Our science writers typically treat the pronouncements of professors with kind of the same  reverence that North Korean journalists treat the utterances of government officials. 

Mainstream science writers seem to think that their mission consists of the following:

  1. To get the public interested in science papers that are written in prose that is typically rather boring.
  2. To get people to understand scientific progress that may be written up in some jargon-filled prose that is hard for the layman to understand.

But there are additional important roles that science writers should be undertaking:

  1. To subject the claims of science authorities to critical scrutiny, which may involve sometimes pointing out that the evidence does not back up the claim being made.
  2. To point out inconsistencies, weaknesses, implausibilities or unwarranted assertions in the claims of science authorities, whenever such things occur.

But these two roles are hardly being performed by mainstream science writers, who seem to typically act like cheerleaders, like people no more prone to challenge the pronouncements of authorities than journalists in China or North Korea. 

Let us look at an example of how pom-pom science journalists failed to do their job. A scientific paper was published claiming to have produced evidence for memory traces in the hippocampus. Some mice were trained to fear an electric shock delivered in a particular spot. Then some fancy gizmo was hooked up to their brains, which supposedly delivered a kind of energy burst in some particular area of the brain where the scientists thought the memories were stored. The "fear freezing" behavior of the mice was reported as being different when such a burst was delivered, and the scientists reported this as evidence that parts of the hippocampus contain "contain memory traces for fear-inducing contexts." 

Our pom-pom science journalists reported such a result uncritically. But adequate coverage of this paper would have put such a paper in a proper light by discussing all of the following things:

  • The results were produced testing a number of mice, but the paper doesn't tell us how many mice were tested. If only a few mice were tested, we should have very little confidence in the results.
  • A mouse receiving a burst of energy may freeze not because some previous fear-training memory was activated by the energy, but because the mouse is responding to a novel, unexpected stimulus.
  • The paper was based on judgments of fear-freezing in mice, which is a very subjective thing to judge, the type of thing where an experimenter bias could easily have crept in.
  • The paper was experimenting with mice, but no such results have been produced with humans; so the result may not reveal anything about human memory.  
  • The result suggested by the experiment contradicts the result produced over many years of experiments by Karl Lashley, who did all kinds of experiments testing memories in animals after removing or damaging parts of their brains, and could find no evidence that any particular memory was stored in any particular part of the brain.
  • The leading journal Nature published an article entitled “Brain-manipulation studies may produce spurious links to behavior,” pointing out that shooting energy into one part of a brain (the technique used by the paper) may cause other parts of the brain to fire off, resulting in unpredictable effects.
  • The graphs of the scientific paper show only very small differences between the behavior of the mice that received the burst of energy and those that did not. After 10 or 20 tries, any experimenter could have probably produced such marginal results testing with a meaningless stimulus such as saying the word “Abracadabra,” because of mere chance variations.