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Overzealous Science Journalism.

Scientists always keep complaining that the public doesn’t understand science. Yet university and lab newsroom reports of latest research claiming of “break-through” are becoming glaring examples of how sober facts of science can finally be contorted into flashy news totally detached from reality. Quite often it is seen that the researches themselves indulge in this unbecoming activity as they prepare reports about their research for the layperson. May be it’s their craving for the limelight or may be it’s the pressure from the funding groups or university themselves.

Overzealous science reporting often exhibits two kind of basic flaws: first, where the interpretation of the research findings and their extrapolation are themselves far fetched; second, where the journalist’s understanding of the research data is imperfect.

The chief problem cropping up when researchers report their own study is that they hardly bother to contain their explanations within the limits of their research data. Instead, there is a more-than-needed emphasis on the broader implications of the new study and why the study is “so important”. This leads to unrealistic extrapolation of research data – a menacing issue especially in the field of social psychology and behavioral sciences.

Take for example the story from the Beckman institute, University of Illinois regarding the re-running of the famous Duncker’s Fortress/Tumor Problem : “Researchers Find Eye Movement Can Affect Problem-solving, Cognition.”

 

They report in the current (Aug., 2007) issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review that by occasionally guiding the eye movements of participants with a tracking task unrelated to the problem, they were able to “substantially affect their chances of problem-solving success” to the point where those groups outperformed every control group at solving the problem. These results, they conclude, demonstrate that “it is now clear that not only do eye movements reflect what we are thinking, they can also influence how we think”.

A quick run through the original paper will tell us that such generalizations were too hasty, while even the answer to the basic question of whether the problem-solvers really used the visual clues offered by eye-tracking, remains elusive yet. Remember that even with very explicit visual and analogical cognitive clues, Gick and Holyoak had not produced satisfactory results in the 1983 ‘modified re-run’ of Duncker’s original Fortress/Tumor Problem experiment.

The trends in sociobiology are much more deplorable than this. Darwinian principles in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology have almost (or at least in popular appeal) become synonymous with genetic determinism. The world is trained to ask “Did my genes make me do that?” and the media promptly replies quoting a new research: “Blame it on your genes, baby!” And then there is the new idea of “neuro-marketing”, where the detection of a flurry of regional brain activity in an fMRI on seeing a brand is “branded” as “BRAND PREFERENCE”.

Newsroom boys found it less exciting to term it “learned preference” which had been the more appropriate explanation for the behavior any way.

There are more instances of such absurd reporting in other realms of science. The recent “Soliton theory of Nerve impulse conduction” of the Copenhagen University researchers and the “Faster than Light Signal transmission Experiment” of the NEC research institute group in Princeton are reasonably good experimental designs whose results were totally contorted to look outlandish.

The Soliton Theory of Nerve Conduction was revolutionary on one account: it suggested a broader perspective into which the established ionic conduction theories could be viewed in. All it sought was to answer the perplexing age-old question – ‘why isn’t there much resistance heat generated in the nerves as a result of electrical conduction?’ Whatever the scientific plausibility of the findings, it wasn’t even close to anything the news headline shouted: nerves use sound, not electricity!”

Similar is the story of the recent claims of Sending electromagnetic impulses at supraluminal velocities. The article as usual came in popular media with roaring headlines such as “Speed of light barrier broken” and “Time travel becoming a reality”. Astonishingly unscientific claims like” Relativity being questioned” kind of interpretations were also not uncommon.
What the NEC Research Institute group did really was that they created an anomalous dispersive medium and achieved propagation of a pulse at velocities above that of light in vacuum thru early re-phasing of the component waves. Only the group velocity got faster than light, while the phase velocity remained unaffected. There is nothing NEW about this as far as relativity or time travel is concerned, notwithstanding the brilliance of the experimental setup.

Science reporting, like any other reporting, is fast yielding to sensationalism. Flashy headlines, digressions peppered with quotes from veterans, unrealistic extrapolation of lab data, unnecessary links to science fiction and fantasies, hasty generalizations, overemphasis on genetic determinism are tricks being regularly used at the newsrooms to ensnare the uninformed reader. And what finally happens is the spread of half truths that can finally boomerang on the scientific community itself.

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