Home » Neuroscience, Popular culture » Neuroscience and popular culture: How much are journalists to blame for pop science culture?

Neuroscience and popular culture: How much are journalists to blame for pop science culture?

Don’t blame journalists, says Jonah Lehrer here on the reporting of science. He makes some excellent points:

Scientists are almost never subjected to critical coverage in the mainstream media. Quick: name the last newspaper or magazine article that dared to criticize or skeptically analyze a piece of published research. If you had trouble thinking of an article, it’s because it almost never happens. And this isn’t because science is perfect. As a JAMA study reported last year, almost a third of medical studies published in the most prestigious journals are wrong. Flat out false. These are the same studies that get that get faithfully recited in our daily newspapers day after day. This gullible reporting stands in sharp contrast to the way scientists actually perceive things. When I talk to scientists, I’m always impressed by the way they criticize the research of their peers. To take a recent example: a few weeks ago I spent over an hour listening to a neuroeconomist elegantly dissect a very influential fMRI study. (Other scientists subsequently echoed his criticisms.) And yet this same study has been covered extensively in the press, with nary a hint of skepticism. The fact is, science journalists suffer from an excess of politeness. We are intimidated by all the acronyms, and forget to ask difficult questions. But this is our duty. Most researchers, after all, are funded by tax dollars. They have an obligation to explain their research to the public.

He recommends that we stop letting science journals control the flow of news. I agree, except that in areas like “evolutionary psychology,” public funding usually means a licence to propound whatever you want, and call it science. Anyway, assuming we all agree that this situation is a problem – in the phrase of the old folk tale – who will put the bell on the cat?

Look, I am a science journalist myself, and I say yes, blame science journalists. Too many of us just do not even think to ask enough of the right questions about too many stories.

In fairness, when we do ask, as Lehrer implies, we run into problems.

Recently, I offered a piece to a peer reviewed science journal, on why most people do not believe atheistic materialism, as it is represented in popular culture. That’s my specific beat.

I warned the editor that I write like a journalist, not like an academic. My offer was accepted, but when I got the peer review, I was dismayed.

It was full of pettifogging demands for definitions of stuff no one needs defining in the context.

Like, for example, when Dean Hamer says that we are a bunch of chemicals running around in a bag or Steve Pinker explains how infanticide “helps” evolution – what’s not to understand? Hundreds of millions of people read this stuff in the popular press – and they understand. It is a series of overlapping circles whose core is materialist atheism.

I withdrew the paper and found another home for it. From that experience, I realized two things:

1. I could never write anything they would want.

2. They would never want anything I could write. (Even though I know stuff they don’t.)

Meanwhile, I wrote the lead editor, and said, “If a story rolled through the science press saying that “Sex with dogs helps evolution, study finds”, would anyone really be surprised?”

Would anyone question it? Would anyone ask, is this really science?

That would be nice. But be still, my heart! That train she be a long time comin’.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on P urpose

Some other stories of possible interest at The Mindful Hack, my blog on neuroscience, spirituality, and society.

Neurosurgery: Does “slice n’ dice” cut it, when mental disorders are in question?

Neuroscience and popular culture: Neuroscientist examines brains of his family members for killer gene

Neuroscience and popular culture: How much are science journalists to blame for pop science culture?

Psychology: Think positively – or peel potatoes!

Pop Neuroscience and spirituality: “Dear God, please don’t exist, so I can get lucrative assignments, and maybe tenure, teaching easily digested ” rot …

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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8 Responses to Neuroscience and popular culture: How much are journalists to blame for pop science culture?

  1. Regarding the corruption as to how information about science is communicated has anybody seen this?

    How Wikipedia’s green doctor rewrote 5,428 climate articles

  2. What on Earth is a “neuroeconomist”?

  3. Denyse, you wrote, ““If a story rolled through the science press saying that ‘Sex with dogs helps evolution, study finds”, would anyone really be surprised?’

    Actually, a better example would be “homosexual sex” because those STUDIES do exist, and plentifully.

    As you probably know, the current explanation is that homosexuality exists to help raise the offspring of their heterosexual siblings, or some eye-rolling nonsense like that.

  4. Todd White at 3, a couple of years ago, I was teaching adult night school in a district a block or so from Toronto’s best-known gay lifestyle community.

    Referencing the information you provide, I asked my students, “Does anyone really believe that all these people are here, living in the way they prefer, in order to raise the offspring of their hetero sibs? Does that conform to the evidence you are seeing?” No one thought it did, of course.

    This much I know is true:

    - Traditional cultures place a very high value on fertility, and tend to forbid sex acts that frustrate it (some exceptions allowed, but not enough to change the general pattern). We should not expect to see this view prevail so strongly if “helping raise siblings’ kids” was considered comparable with helping to produce the kids.

    - Anyway, the role of helping raise kids was surely taken mainly by grannies, which freed moms to go out to fish, forage, scatter seeds, and set small traps. A gay guy would be expected to join the hunt, of course.

    - While we can never be entirely sure what happened in preliterate cultures, in those whose oral stories have survived, personal infertility was viewed as a curse. For one thing, if you do not leave descendants, there is no one whose absolute duty is to pay respect and honour to you as an ancestor – let alone look after you when you are old. (Honour thy father and thy mother …. Commandment 5)

    - One outcome of the point noted immediately above was surely that many people who preferred partners of their own gender produced children anyway. Then those people were the primary caregivers for the children, and what they did on the side was … well, regarded variously in different cultures. After all, they had done their duty and secured their status as ancestors.

    - Yes, “eyes rolling” about covers such a theory. It’s obviously so counterfactual that we can clearly see that it is intended only to keep up the pretence that “evolutionary” psychology is some kind of discipline.

    Discipline is just what it ISN’T.

    Don’t count the dogs out, by the way. “Evolutionary” psychologists will – I suppose – get round to them eventually – maybe far down the queue after “evolutionary” shopping or “evolutionary” preferences in cupcakes.

    “Evolutionary” psychology (EP) is the main reason I began to suspect that much evolutionary biology is also a big fat scam. The fact that people who think they are scientists do not rise up to denounce the EP garbage makes me suspect that the evolutionary biologists have too much garbage of their own to hide.

  5. What I find difficult to understand is why you should find evolutionary psychology so objectionable. It is hardly the only science which indulges in speculation.

    Yes, evolutionary psychologists are telling stories but then so are journalists. In different senses, it is true but it’s the stock-in-trade of both.

    In fact, the human race can be viewed a species of inveterate story-tellers.

    In pre-literate cultures, acquired knowledge or wisdom was passed on by word-of mouth as stories.

    The Bible is a compilation of stories describing the history of the faith and illustrating doctrinal and moral points. From that perspective, religions are just meta-stories or ‘stories of everything’

    A current theory of memory holds that, far from being like a videotape recording of everything that happens to the individual, only salient features of events are stored. Remembering something involves reconstructing the most probable sequence of events on the basis of those stored features, in other words, constructing a story.

    Our visual system seems to work in a similar way, by scanning the visual field for salient features and filling in the blanks, as it were, from memory.

    Wildlife documentary makers do not simply broadcast their raw footage exactly as it was recorded. They use carefully-chosen sequences to illustrate stories they are telling about the creatures they are observing.

    Journalists do not simply write down everything they see happening around them. They look for stories to tell.

    Science is just another form of story-telling. The only difference is that it places much greater emphasis on the descriptive accuracy and explanatory power of the stories so it insists that they must be testable. In other words, unlike religion, before the stories are taken as gospel they have to be proven.

    If the stories told by evolutionary psychologists sound far-fetched that is not necessarily a problem as long as they are not being promoted as anything more than speculative while they are still untested. Science has to start somewhere and, if you remember, Popper encouraged scientists to be bold in their conjecture.

    The conflict between science and science journalism arises from the fact they are trying to tell the same story to different audiences. The scientist’s story will be intended for fellow specialists. It can be highly-technical or, if it is more speculative, can be hedged around with provisos and qualifications. The journalist has to translate and simplify that story into a version that will be comprehensible and interesting to a lay audience. A bit like converting classical paintings like the Mona Lisa into black-and-white newspaper cartoons, you get a recognizable impression but a lot is lost in the translation.

    A good rule-of-thumb is that, if you see a story in the popular press with a headline like “Sex with dogs helps evolution, study finds”, don’t believe a word of it until you have checked out the original. At best, it’s a journalist’s honest attempt to explain the research in simple terms. At worst, it’s simply being played up for shock value; it provides an eye-grabbing headline.

    The reason why science news – or indeed any news , should not be left entirely in the hands of journalists is the same reason as you would not want food supplies in the hands of bulimics. All you get is what they choose to regurgitate.

  6. What on Earth is a “neuroeconomist”?

    Evidently, someone who does behavioural economics with added fMRI. Très chic.

  7. Seversky,

    Yes scientists must tell a story. But sometimes scientists put the weight of their PhDs behind just so stories when they should distinguish between them and stories based on experimental results.

  8. Collin,

    Yes scientists must tell a story. But sometimes scientists put the weight of their PhDs behind just so stories when they should distinguish between them and stories based on experimental results.

    Amen.

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