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Thursday, May 19, 2016
If symptoms persist, see your scientistThe news media do us no favors by failing to convey uncertainty.
he most annoying thing about those TV science documentaries, besides those close-up scenes of giant blinking eyeballs, is when they say things like this:
The Milky Way will be destroyed in 5-6 billion years!
The universe will someday rip itself apart due to dark energy!
Global warming will melt the icecaps!
Eating chocolate prevents Alzheimer's!
Nasacort® Nasal Spray relieves nasal congestion and sneezing for up
to 12 hours!
Okay, a commercial came on while I was writing these down. But what they all have in common is that they're expressed as if they are absolutely certain. But by giving hypotheticals the status of established truth, the media give the public a faulty understanding of science. It leads to a mismatch of expectations.
Those out of mainstream writers who claim scientific results cannot be replicated are one result. Another is the complaint that scientific papers contradict each other. The canonical example is cancer studies in mice, which were so badly misrepresented that people joked that everything caused cancer in mice.
This isn't an academic problem. Since politicians have to respond to whatever the news media say, they may spend billions of dollars fixing problems that don't exist. If politicians misunderstand how science evolves, they will even create new problems.
Science has a social context. Cancer testing is a good example. Some of it is mandated by government regulations, and a lot of it is commercial: in this Age of Too Many Lawyers, companies need to know whether their product has any chance of exposing them to liability. So they pour fifty pounds of saccharine on a mouse and test whether it causes cancer, knowing that it is not how their product is likely ever to be used.
Yet even here, the news media misreport the result. Why do they ignore the context of the experiment? Why do they have so much trouble conveying uncertainty? There are many answers: to make it more exciting. To fit it in the available time slot before the commercial. Because the public wouldn't understand.
Once as a little kid I asked some grownup what was the shape of the universe. I expected him to say “Nobody knows, kid, but it's at least xyz billion light years across, and space itself might be infinite.” Instead he said, “You mean the whole wide world? It's round!”
The question was clear enough, but the grownup changed the question on purpose in order to answer the question he knew the answer to. At that point I remembered this was the same bastard who'd lied to me all those years about Santa Claus. I wanted to kick him in the shins and say, “Wrong answer, a######!!!” But I didn't. I just nodded politely.
If science reporters don't convey the uncertainty in the result, they are lying to you. If they don't report the context of the experiment or the paradigm, if you will, that led to the experiment, they are not conveying the meaning.
In that Nasacort® commercial, the athletic-looking people who use the product happily ride their bikes through the park. They talk about how it cures all these symptoms of hay fever and whatnot. But in small print at the bottom of the screen it says: “The exact mechanism of action is unknown.”
Maybe science reporters could put something like this at the bottom of the screen:*
Those scientists who pile on to the global warming bandwagon are well advised to do the same before climatology gets classified along with phrenology and homeopathy. (As an aside, they don't do it just for the grant money as most people think. They do it because, for the first time ever, climatology has become important. Most scientists want to work on something important.)
Maybe people should go to a scientist once a year like they go to their doctor. It would be a good way of funding research instead of government grants. People could get individualized training: “Doctor, help, Lawrence Krauss says there is dark energy and dark matter and they do opposite things, but Einstein says matter and energy are the same! I'm confused!"
The scientist might prescribe something by Michio Kaku. If symptoms persist, see your scientist.
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Last updated May 20 2016, 5:33 am