Saturday, November 13, 2004

'Blinded by Science'

Though it's a bit off topic for this coming week's discussion, I thought I'd share this recent article from the Columbia Journalism Review, called Blinded by Science.

It makes the argument that mainstream coverage of science has created a forum for lower-quality science because 'fringe' science makes better (i.e. more controversial) reading. Simply invoking the name of science seems to create enough readership and interest to support even the most outrageous claims based on the most scant evidence.

This was brought home to me recently when an appaled friend e-mailed me with a link to a website that claimed that recent Bush appontees to the EPA were planning on testing potentially toxic chemicals on disadvantaged children. The website, run by an organization called Organic Consumers, runs with the title 'EPA Will Use Poor Kids as Guinea Pigs.'

Not taking the site on faith, I dug up the EPA document which, not surprisingly, includes nothing remotely close to 'poor families having their children exposed to toxic pesticides,' as the Organic Consumers site claimed.


Blogger Paul Duguid said...

I think there was a second aspect to "Blinded by Science" that is worth noting. As well as sensational but bad science, the article also raised the problem of balance. Obsessed with this notion (brought over from political coverage), editors apparently now insist that politically controversial (but scientifically well-founded) theories have to be balanced by their opposite. (Alexander Cockburn once envisioned a Newshour interview with Stalin and Hitler as the archetype of our obsession with balanced reporting.) In science, this leads to the idiocy of balancing evolutionary theory with arguments from design, as if the two were equivalents. The underlying assumption seems to be that giving one "side" is biased, and that quality and truth inevitably lie somewhere between extremes and that journalists can objectively mark the extremes, but not the path down the middle.

None of this says it's wrong to be suspicious of science, but then most people are. I picked up a section of the Times last week that carried the headline, "Researcher forges her own path to cure," thinking that here was more rotten information and fodder for our class. In fact, the argument was about a researcher "forging ahead" rather than forging results. Forge, once a headline-friendly words (v. Nunberg on roil, seems too problematic now for this kind of innocent use.

5:54 PM  
Blogger yardi said...

Science is also used for marketing purposes and to give people what they want to hear. The example that always comes to mind for me is Kellogg's Special K 2-week diet.
Their site claims that "Kellogg Company's nutrition team worked closely with researchers at leading universities to thoroughly test the Special K® Challenge" but it doesn't post which university or who did the research.
The premise of the diet is that you eat less, so obviously you will lose weight. It's not rocket science. Nonetheless, it appears that their science sells. Given that the diet industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, worthless science apparently is worth a lot to some people.

11:33 PM  

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