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More shoddy science reporting from the BBC

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An exciting headline on the BBC News website recently:

Alzheimer’s: Diet ‘can stop brain shrinking’

Alzheimer’s is a devastating illness and anything that can help prevent or delay its onset, or lessen it’s severity, is to be welcomed. The headline, and in part the article that follows, suggest that diet can reduce brain shrinkage in later life and so act protectively against Alzheimer’s. There are a couple of problems here though, that should be quickly apparent if you read the article with a sceptical eye. The first is in the suggestion that the article has anything to do with Alzheimer’s: the research wasn’t conducted on Alzheimer’s sufferers, and participants weren’t followed longitudinally to see if there was a differential incidence of Alzheimer’s developing. So, the research can’t actually tell us anything about Alzheimer’s. To be fair to the article, this is mentioned. In the penultimate paragraph.

A bigger problem, potentially, is with the interpretation of the research itself. The article takes an unambiguous position that a diet high in vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids caused a reduction in brain shrinkage with age. However, the research didn’t find this. Rather, it found a correlation between blood nutrients and brain volume: as a quasi-experiment, even if the test used a difference statistic then the result is essentially correlational. And correlation doesn’t prove causation. There are a number of possible reasons for the results found, given the pre-existing evidence that education and intellectual effort increases brain complexity and volume. Off the top of my head, it may be that people who are well educated tend to have higher brain volumes, and also tend to eat healthier diets. Or people from higher socio-economic groups tend to be both more highly educated, and are more likely to follow (and be able to afford) a healthy diet.

To eliminate these possibilities, you’d hope that the original research controlled for factors including education and socio-economic status. It’s behind a paywall so I can’t check, but if they did then the BBC didn’t think to mention it. The other result reported, that there was a difference in performance on cognitive tasks in a sample of people without clinical deficits, suggests that there’s some relationship between diet and cognitive performance, but without knowing the educational history of the participants it’s impossible to decide whether diet causes differences in performance, as the article suggests; or whether it’s again a matter of better educated people tending to have better diets. The latter is certainly a strong possibility, and you’d hope that the health editor who wrote the article would discuss this.

Written by daijones

January 1, 2012 at 10:25 pm

“Objectivity” and the View from Nowhere

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There’s a nice piece here on the “View from Nowhere” in journalism. This is described as a position where it is assumed that objectivity can be achieved by refusing to adopt a position towards a news story. Rather than delivering a story from a particular perspective, the reporter is expected to present the views of others, and facts as others see it, achieving balance by ensuring an equal number or duration of views from different sides of contentious issues. In this model, the reporter is solely an agent transmitting the ideas of others, with as little input from their own thought processes as possible. The article argues that this is a false premise, and that it’s impossible to achieve a view from nowhere: we cannot adopt no position, and trying to hide our true position in the name of “objectivity” serves to obscure when we should aim for transparency. Worse, the article goes on to suggest, encouraging journalists to adopt a view from nowhere is to deny the expertise of the journalist, and their role in the investigation and understanding of a story. The article suggests that the journalist is a knowledge worker, not a passive channel to transmit the claims of others, and that their job should be to help us to understand a situation while being transparent about the position they are adopting towards it.

I like this article a lot, partly because I agree with it when it comes to journalism, but mainly because it’s the position I try to adopt in my lectures. Academics are employed to be knowledge producers and analysers, not relayers of received wisdom, and as such need to actively construct a position towards a body of knowledge while admitting to the factors that influence that position. That’s why my books include a biographical sketch that includes a statement of my political position, so that my position is transparent and my analysis can be understood in those terms.

 

Written by daijones

December 21, 2011 at 1:05 am

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Psychology in everyday discourse

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I’ve said various things in various lectures about the relationship between the discipline of psychology and people’s everyday psychological thinking. These include that psychology (the discipline) creates concepts that change our everyday understanding of the psychological, and that our everyday psychological understanding is reflected in the language we use – what Graham Richards calls Folk Psychological Language. If these claims are true, then we might expect innovations and change in the discipline of psychology to be reflected in everyday language. I’ve long been interested in doing a piece of large-scale research on this, but other writing projects have taken priority. However, a new tool released by Google Labs, the Books Ngram Viewer, makes such a project much easier so I might revisit the idea. This project relies on the huge store of literature that Google Books has built up, and has made that store into a searchable database so that you can search for the occurrence of particular terms in books over time. Let’s look at a few examples.

I’ve claimed that the notion of “motivation”, which seems so fundamental a part of human psychology, is a relatively modern Western innovation, which has value and meaning only in particular socio-economic contexts. It first comes to psychology through psychoanalysis, but is given a different meaning by mainstream scientific psychology. If we search for occurrences of motivation in English books we get:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=motivation&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cmotivation%3B%2Cc0

Basically nothing until Freud introduces the term at the start of the 20th century, then some growth, followed by a spurt with the rise of industrial/occupational psychology in the US from the 1940s. The trend is delayed in French language psychology:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=motivation&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=19&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cmotivation%3B%2Cc0

Here, it’s only from the 1950s that motivation really takes off as a concept. I’ve written elsewhere about Western Europe adopting the forms of US psychology after the second world war, and this is perhaps evidence of it. One other example, this time from Russian psychology:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D1%8F&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=25&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2C%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D1%8F%3B%2Cc0

Russian psychology is interesting because under the Communist regime scientists were limited in what they could do by the ideological demands of the state apparatus. Clearly Stalin – who died in 1953 – wasn’t happy with the idea of motivation, as an import from Western capitalist societies. Later Communist regimes were more accepting of the concept, and it continues to grow as Russia becomes a capitalist society. (Russian is tricky because ‘motivation’ translates into multiple terms, but I think I’ve got the right one.)

What these examples seem to indicate is that the idea of “motivation” as a psychological construct is socially and historically dependent. What about some other concepts? Let’s try IQ:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=IQ&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CIQ%3B%2Cc0

The term is only developed in the 1910s, so you wouldn’t expect to see any mentions before that: those few that occur are likely noise arising from how the algorithm works, I need to tinker with the settings more to get cleaner data. Anyway, the concept of IQ was clearly very successful, very quickly, in the English speaking world. But of course, everyone knows that “IQ tests” were invented by the French psychologist, Binet, so how was the concept received in French psychology?

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=QI&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=19&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CQI%3B%2Cc0

In French psychology, we see little increase in the use of the term when IQ tests are first developed – the French didn’t want anything to do with IQ it seems. This isn’t surprising, since IQ tests, and the concept of IQ as we understand it, are very much American innovations reflecting a specific socio-political context. Binet did develop tests of intellectual performance, but these were in no way IQ tests: they had a very different inspiration and purpose. The English speaking concept of IQ only gains widespread acceptance in French psychology after the second world war, reinforcing the point above.

It’s probably a little sad to admit, but I could play with this data set for hours. One more example will suffice for now though. I’ve talked about how when psychology introduces a term it changes our understanding of our own condition; and of the increasing medicalisation of psychology. I’ve used the example of the change from the concept of “melancholy” to the concept of “depression”, suggesting that the latter has replaced the former, and with it changed the way we understand mental health. Let’s have a look:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=melancholy%2Cdepression%2C&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cmelancholy%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cdepression%3B%2Cc0

The pattern is pretty clear: the more ‘modern’, scientific term “depression” takes over at the start of the 20th Century, and receives a particular boost with the growth of clinical psychology as a profession.

This tool gives a quick and easy way to trace the history of a concept. What about psychology in Germany? It emerges in the mid-19th Century, grows to a certain extent, but then gets a massive boost when the nazi regime found it to be politically and practically useful:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=psychologie&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=20&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cpsychologie%3B%2Cc0

Which I hope corroborates the claims I make in Tyson, Jones & Elcock

Written by daijones

December 22, 2010 at 3:15 am

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The changing face of psychology degrees

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In Tyson, Jones & Elcock I argue that the discipline of psychology is shaped, in terms of what it investigates and how, by social context, including sources of funding. We’re about to see this in action within UK psychology, following the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review and the Brown review of Higher Education. These two developments will have a significant impact in the shape of British, or at least English, higher education generally, and psychology degree syllabuses particularly. This in turn affects the views of psychology of the next generation of psychologists, and so the way psychology will be conducted going forward.

There has long been a disagreement within parts of psychology about whether psychology should be a science, and if so what kind of science psychology should be. Historically the dominant view has been that psychology should aspire to the status of a natural science, and its methods and theories have developed accordingly. This emphasises positivism, reductionism, and the search for universal nomothetic laws to explain human behaviour. Against this, as far back as Windelbrand and Wundt some have argued that psychology should be a distinctly social science, with an emphasis on interpretive understanding, so Geisteswissenschaft rather than Naturwissenschaft. There has recently been an increasing recognition of the peculiarly reflexive nature of psychology, and with it an increased awareness of the need to consider it a social, or at least human, science, rather than aspiring to the natural science model. (The historical trends are discussed in Jones & Elcock; the modern recognition of reflexivity is at the heart of Tyson, Jones & Elcock.) However, in Britain at least this recent trend looks likely to be set back by recent developments in Higher Education.

The recently announced Comprehensive Spending Review posits significant changes to the funding of Higher Education in England. In particular, it proposes the withdrawal of all public support for courses in social sciences, arts and humanities; and the maintenance of such support only for courses in hard sciences, technology, education and medicine (so called STEM subjects). The argument for this is that only STEM courses bring direct economic benefits, and public money shouldn’t be wasted on courses without such benefits. This ignores the social capital – in terms of culture, human development, the foundation of civilisation – that inheres in the University system. Higher Education should be seen as a public good, and at least in part funded as such, as it has been for these past many years. Unfortunately those days are apparently gone, public financing of this huge amount of social capital being jettisoned to pay for the mistakes of the banking sector, which apparently escapes unscathed. We should be grateful that the British Museum isn’t similarly being crucified, so that at least some public support for culture remains, although the same economic vs culture argument could be made for removing public funding from that institution and similar. Still, that’s by the by. The impact of these changes on psychology will be significant, since it is not seen or funded as a STEM subject for the most part. British degrees are funded according to four bands, to reflect the differential costs of courses. Medicine is in band A, attracting the most public funding, and most hard sciences are in band B, attracting less than band A but more than others. Humanities courses are in band B, which attracts less. Currently, psychology is funded as band C, receiving more than humanities courses to cover the costs of research labs and equipment. In future band C funding will be removed, meaning not only that psychology courses lose public support; they lose more support than some other courses making them particularly expensive for Universities to offer. Something will have to give.

It’s impossible to predict what effect these finding changes will have on Universities, but we can rehearse the possibilities. One possibility is that many Universities decide that psychology courses are uneconomic to run, despite their healthy recruitment, because in future they will be funded by student fees in the same way as cheaper courses that don’t need to pay for laboratory work. The current resource requirements set by the British Psychological Society for courses seeking the Graduate Basis for Chartership are a particular problem here – the required resources can’t be afforded without either public support or higher fees. A second possibility is that psychology courses change to try to attain the status – in the Government’s eyes – of hard sciences, and so retain public funding. This will have the effect of cementing the view of psychology as a natural science discussed above, retarding the recognition of psychology as a reflexive, human science. A third possibility is that a split will appear within psychology courses, with some BPS accredited courses emphasising their natural science credentials and charging high fees; and other courses reducing the emphasis on lab work in order to charge lower fees. The former institutions are likely to be the ones that can sustain high fees and afford a degree of cross subsidy, and so will be the richer, higher status institutions. The latter are likely to be newer institutions of lower status. When high status institutions emphasise psychology as a natural science, and lower status institutions downplay this, then we can expect that the natural science approach to psychology will attain an even higher status than it has now, again retarding the reflexive human science view. A sign of this is in a survey on the future of undergraduate psychology being conducted by the Higher Education Academy’s Psychology Network, which asks in part whether there should be more differentiation and specialisation between psychology degrees.

The changes to Government funding arrangements then seem likely to reinforce the view of psychology as a natural science. However, these changes go hand in hand with the recommendations of the Browne review of Higher Education, particularly in that public support for HE will be replaced with the fee mechanism laid out by Browne. Discussion of the Browne review has concentrated on fees, and Universities are gratefully clutching at this straw to replace the funding lost to bail out the bankers. However, as this analysis shows, the Browne report is about much more than funding, and envisages the reshaping of Higher Education along market lines, on the assumption that such a market in HE would work like the perfect markets described in old economics textbooks, even though modern economics (with insights from psychology!), everyday experience, and the example of the banking crisis show that markets don’t actually work that way. This market model emphasises economic benefits over social capital, as with the Government spending review – the two clearly inform each other – and also the operation of market mechanisms as the determinant of undergraduate provision. Market forces will determine what degrees will be offered, and what those degrees will consist of. This could go one of two ways for psychology. On the one hand, student satisfaction is seen as the main outcome that will drive degree choice by applicants and hence degree survival and content. Most students dislike psychology’s heavy emphasis on research methods and statistics, so one might expect that this change will reduce demand for natural science heavy courses in psychology. That seems to me unlikely. Instead, applicant choices are likely to be increasingly swayed by the perceived status of institutions, as a very poor analog for student experience; and by the perceived economic benefits of a degree in terms of job opportunities. This again would suggest psychology provision will be dominated by richer Universities offering BPS accredited courses, since such accreditation will be necessary to pursue a career in psychology, and psychology will increasingly be studied only by those seeking such a career.

Taking these two changes together, I would expect to see – though I very much hope I’m wrong – a contraction in psychology ,with fewer students choosing from a smaller choice of courses, and those courses emphasising a BPS accredited, natural science heavy curriculum. As part of this, there’ll be an increased focus on cognitive psychology and neuropsychology, and on particular areas of applied work. The insights gained from other approaches to psychology, and the personal benefits to be gained by studying psychology for reasons other than professional practice, will be greatly diminished.

Clearly there’s a political point being made here, but that’s incidental to the main argument: the content and nature of psychology degrees will change, meaning that psychologists will change, not as a result of a progressive refinement of psychological science, but as a result of policy and funding decisions by the Government. As argued in Tyson, Jones & Elcock, psychology is very much shaped by its social context.

 

Written by daijones

November 3, 2010 at 8:36 pm

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Psychology’s subjects

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Psychology is usually pursued as a science akin to the natural sciences, attempting to find universal laws of behaviour that explain all humans. Central to this view is the idea that it doesn’t matter what humans we study, since we all have the same fundamental psychological processes. However, for many phenomena in human psychology this isn’t necessarily true, and arguably much of our psychological function is a reflection of our cultural background. If this is the case, then it’s a problem that Western psychology tends to only investigate Western participants and Western concepts, and then tries to apply the resultant theories to all people. For example, Hwang (2005) describes the modernising approach to intervention in the developing world, which imposed Western notions of individualism on other societies as the “right” goal for development, while Watters (2010) describes how Western definitions of mental illness are being exported to other cultures to the detriment of members of those cultures.

As the references above suggest, there is some awareness of the problem of generating “universal” theories of human nature without paying regard to cultural differences, and specifically the problems posed by studying exclusively Western participants and assuming the results hold true for other peoples. A couple of good articles address this head issue head on.

Arnett (2008) analyses research published in APA journals and finds that participants are overwhelmingly drawn from the 5% of the world’s population who are from the USA. He analyses the problems this causes, and suggests some solutions. The abstract reads:

This article proposes that psychological research published in APA journals focuses too narrowly on Americans, who comprise less than 5% of the world’s population. The result is an understanding of psychology that is incomplete and does not adequately represent humanity. First, an analysis of articles published in six premier APA journals is presented, showing that the contributors, samples, and editorial leadership of the journals are predominantly American. Then, a demographic profile of the human population is presented to show that the majority of the world’s population lives in conditions vastly different from the conditions of Americans, underlining doubts of how well American psychological research can be said to represent humanity. The reasons for the narrowness of American psychological research are examined, with a focus on a philosophy of science that emphasizes fundamental processes and ignores or strips away cultural context. Finally, several suggestions for broadening the scope of American psychology are offered.

Henrich et al (2010) go further in identifying problems with relying on Western participants, arguing in depth that Westerners are importantly different from other peoples on important characteristics, and that these differences colour the results of psychology research. The abstract reads:

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers—often implicitly—assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species—frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior—hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

References

Arnett, Jeffrey J. (2008) The Neglected 95%. American Psychologist, Vol 63(7), pp. 602-614.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol 33(2-3), pp. 61-83.

Hwang, K.-K. (2005). The indigenous movement. The Psychologist, 18(2), 80-83.

Watters, E. (2010). Crazy Like Us: The globalization of the American Psyche. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Written by daijones

October 8, 2010 at 2:01 am

Posted in Full post, Research methods

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Discriminating by eye colour

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I mentioned in PY108 the other day that discriminating between groups on the basis of skin colour is no more valid than discriminating on the basis of eye colour. To show the endless capacity of humans to be nasty bastards, a US teacher did just that in a series of classroom exercises following the assassination of Martin Luther King. To bring the reality of discrimination alive to her children, she split the class into blue eyed and brown eyed groups, treating the groups differently – on different days, one group was treated as the superior, and the other as the inferior. The results are remarkable, especially in showing how treating people in a particular way can lead to changes in behaviour and other outcomes. So, students who were being treated as inferior – discriminated against – on a particular day performed more poorly in their work.

If this happens in the small microcosm of a short term school study, how likely is it that observed differences in IQ between “racial” groups in a society that remains discriminatory can similarly be explained as the results of discrimination? To my mind that’s a much more likely explanation of racial differences in IQ than any recall to genetics. Genetic explanations will appeal to those who would prefer not to confront such societal discrimination, or who even tacitly approve of it, while social explanations will appeal to those who believe in the potential of changing society to remove such discrimination. This difference reflects the difference between the managerialist and interventionist views of psychology’s role in society that we discussed.

Anyway, there’s a very good TV documentary in the PBS-funded FRONTLINE series now available on-line. It’s well worth watching, or at least reading the associated material. You can see it here:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/

Written by daijones

October 7, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Posted in Biological determinism, Full post

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Don’t trust the scientists

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A couple of years ago Channel 4 showed a programme that presented an alternative view of climate change, “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. In this, various scientists presented claims that global warming isn’t the result of human activity (“anthropogenic”), but rather the result of natural forces. The programme generated a fair bit of controversy, which is probably what Channel 4 wanted. I won’t address the claims of the programme directly, but rather on what the programme, and the controversy, teaches us about science, and about the way the media deals with science issues.

In another post I talk about the way in which knowledge is socially constructed, such that a given group in society will find some knowledge claims acceptable, and others unacceptable. What I didn’t talk about is where the knowledge claims come from in the first place. For many of the articles in Conservapedia (the subject of the other post) the knowledge claims come from faith. For most in modern society though, such claims have limited acceptability. Science is seen as a more acceptable way of producing knowledge claims. However, scientists can often be seen to disagree with one another, which makes us wonder why it is that science is regarded so highly. The kind of disagreement shown in the Channel 4 programme illustrate both the weaknesses, but also the strengths, of science as a way of knowing.

Simplistically put, science involves making observations of some phenomena; generating theories to explain those observations, which then lead to predictions; and then testing those predictions. If the predictions are supported, then we can have some confidence in the theory. So, climate scientists observe an increase in global warming, and at the same time an increase in levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Some then theorise that release of CO2 through human activity leads directly to the global warming. (Obviously the situation is more complex, but this will do for our purposes.) If this is true, then we might predict that continuing increases in CO2 levels will lead to continued warming. This has been modelled on computers, and seen to work. Most climate scientists now believe that CO2 levels influence global warming.

That all sounds fine, so why the disagreement? The problem is that there are other possible explanations for the association between CO2 levels and global temperature. For example, some claim that increased temperatures lead in some way to increased CO2 levels, rather than vice versa. The Channel 4 programme presented some of these alternative theories. The weakness of science is that we can’t actually prove any particular theory as being correct, we can only accumulate evidence for or against particular theories and at any given point, believe one theory to be more likely than the others. This is the position we’re in with regards to global warming, though as it happens the great majority of climate scientists now believe that the evidence points to global warming as being human induced.

The debate about global warming seems striking in comparison to the certainty of other scientific knowledge. However, some ideas that now seem well known facts themselves went through the same phase of disagreement. The best example is probably the theory of heliocentrism, the idea that the earth moves around the sun. This was first proposed in Ancient India, around 900-800BCE, and rediscovered repeatedly over the following 2000 years in different cultures. In European terms, the debate was re-ignited by Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th-17th Century CE, but took some time to be widely accepted: the Catholic Church first allowed heliocentric books to be printed in Rome in 1822CE. These days, you’d look foolish suggesting that the earth didn’t move around the sun, although that doesn’t stop some (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_geocentrism). The important point is that the heliocentric view became accepted gradually on the basis of an accumulation of evidence: it’s seldom the case that scientific ideas are suddenly accepted outright.

The weakness of the scientific method is also its strength. When science is done well, then people present their evidence and their reasoning when presenting a theory: this evidence and reasoning can then be checked and tested by others, and found to be valid or wanting. Science can be seen as self-correcting, such that eventually a consensus position is found that most people can agree on. This checking process is illustrated in the case of one of the scientists represented in the Channel 4 programme, Dr Eigil Friis-Christensen. He published three papers purporting to show that global warming was caused by non-human factors: each was shown to be wrong. The second and third papers responded to observed errors in earlier papers in order to provide a new theory for the same underlying idea, that global warming isn’t caused by humans.

Clearly, Dr Friis-Christensen is committed to the idea that humans don’t cause global warming, and clearly he’s eager to find some theory, somewhere, to justify this idea. It’s impossible to know why he’s so committed, whether it be a heartfelt belief; a desire to let humans “off the hook” for economic or political reasons; the result of funding from oil companies; or whatever. This commitment isn’t unusual though, a similar determination can be seen in attempts to “prove” racial differences in intelligence, as discussed in Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man”. At the end of the day, scientists are human. They have pre-existing beliefs that they are committed to, and that they are reluctant to discard. They make mistakes, that can lead them to false conclusions. Most evidence scientists collect is ambiguous, and can’t be definitively interpreted. This is increasingly being recognised, particularly in the field of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociology_of_scientific_knowledge).

The important point is that scientific knowledge claims aren’t purely empirical and rational, but are affected by social factors. When you see a single scientific claim, be sceptical. Look to see what the evidence is, and whether you find it believable. Look at the claims of other scientists in the same area, to see whether they’re compatible or competing, before deciding which claims you believe. And when you come to believe a claim, don’t over commit, because the claim may be disproved at some later date.

As an example of the above, think again about evolutionary theory. The ‘Theory of Evolution’ presented by Darwin in ‘On the Origin of Species’ is specifically a theory of evolution by natural selection. Evolutionary theories had been around since the ancient Greeks, and particularly in Europe since the mid 18th Century. Before Darwin, many believed in Lamarck’s theory of evolution through inheritance of acquired characteristics, because it was then the best explanation for variation in scientific terms. However this theory had weaknesses, like, um, being wrong. Darwin’s theory won out because over time it became clear that it was better supported by evidence.

So, don’t trust the scientists just because they’re scientists: you’ll usually find others who disagree with them, which is an entirely healthy state of affairs. This insight is lost on the media however, who are usually happy to pass on the claims of anyone who seems to have the aura of scientific authority without actually thinking about it. This is clear with “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, where Channel 4 found some scientists who disagreed with the vast majority of climate scientists without bothering to look to see whether their ideas had any foundation. The fact that the programme would likely prove controversial undoubtedly added to the appeal, but in general Channel 4 is crap at doing science. Just look at their continued support for “Dr” Gillian McKeith.

For a good rebuttal of the claims of the programme, read this Guardian article:http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/mar/13/science.media
One of the scientists who appeared on the programme as a denier of anthropogenic climate change is considering legal action against Channel 4 for allegedly duping him, and describes the programme as “grossly distorted”. The two main scientists on the programme were Professor Paul Reiter, whose Annapolis Centre for Science-Based Public Policy had received $763,500 in funding from ExxonMobil, the huge oil company; and Professor Ian Clark, whose Fraser Institute has received $120,000, also from ExxonMobil.

Don’t think I’m only getting at Channel 4 though: in general, the media presents science in a way that will maximise sales/coverage/viewing figures, with little understanding of the issues involved and even less attempt at reasoned analysis. The state of scientific journalism in this country is scandalous, mainly because ‘science journalists’ are journalists first, and very rarely scientists at all. For a considerably better example of science journalism, check out Bad Science (http://www.badscience.net/) which includes a couple of pieces on the Channel 4 programme.

Written by daijones

September 11, 2010 at 7:03 pm

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