Journalism has a persistent bias for the new and exciting. They sell in pop culture, and as it turns out, they sell in scientific culture too. This creates unintended consequences.
Unlike pop or mainstream journalism, objectivity and peer review form critical cornerstones of science’s scientific method. Summarizing “Journalistic Deficit Disorder” (The Economist, September 22, 2012 edition) and “The Truth Wears Off” by Jonah Lehrer (The New Yorker, December 13, 2010 edition), scientific journals tend to prefer studies that:
- Will sell more publications
- Explore popular fields
- Produce exciting, outlying results
- Prove their hypotheses
- Are new, not reruns of previous studies
- Produce supporting results for a new, fashionable paradigm
- Have substantial corporate investment or interest
These tendencies pressure scientists and researchers whose careers, reputations, incomes and funding depend on publicity their works receive. Several consequences undermine the credibility of science and research as a result:
- Emphasis on proving outlandish hypotheses
- Diminished importance of peer review
- Increased biases in interpreting data and statistics
- More focus on confirming popular findings or those with substantial financial backing
- Defunding contrarian work
- Skewing results toward extremes
Exciting often means extreme. In science it’s outlying results such as found in the bell curve. As Lehrer writes, since outliers receive the press, duplicating results is often difficult. Therefore, while hypotheses might be true, they’re not as true. However, as is more often the case, results are wrong, caused by inadequate research methodology, poor statistical analysis or normal human biases.
In other words, we can’t practice safe science by simply relying upon the scientific method. Human nature is too strong, even in scientists and trained researchers. We need to provide our own protection. That means educating ourselves on the scientific method and on the questions to ask. It also means taking nothing on blind faith . . . even science.