Saturday, December 19, 2009

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 disgrace - 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 Purpose

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

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