Policing the Science Beat

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This should be a crime.

Writing about introverts in a back issue of The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch said,

Science has learned a good deal in recent years about the habits and requirements of introverts. It has even learned, by means of brain scans, that introverts process information differently from other people (I am not making this up).

And that’s pretty much all he says about the scientific basis for his article. No mention of whatever study he’s citing. “Science” has learned something, folks. And it’s about our brains. Pretty serious stuff, huh?

A) If you’re going to cite a study, cite the freaking study. B) Science is not a person. Science is not a single mind with a single set of conclusions. Science itself doesn’t learn anything. C) Who can explain for certain the relationship between brain scans and the way humans “process information?” A brain scan is not a snapshot of human cognition. We’re more complex than that. D) You’re not making this up, Jonathan Rauch? Are you sure? Really? Why do you have to point it out?

The article was so popular that The Atlantic ran two follow-up pieces with Rauch, neither of which explains (to my satisfaction) the scientific basis for his claims about introverts. In fact, Rauch at one point remarks on his own “limited reading on the subject.” His fawning interviewer seems to have done more research (by reading a single 50-year-old book) that Rauch has.

This article became a mini-phenomenon for The Atlantic because its observations were tidy, its conclusions easy to predict, and its topic (being shy and smart, essentially) one that Atlantic readers could relate to. First published in 2003, it seems to be ahead of its time. Most science journalism that I read today is based on a catchy idea that speaks to an in-group of readers who are likely to agree with (and, in this case, be flattered by) its conclusions. The popularity of the articles is often inversely proportional to their merit. Kind of like the quarterback on your high school football team, or Two and a Half Men.

Sometimes asking journalists to be scientists just encourages them to make stuff up.

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2 Comments

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2 Responses to Policing the Science Beat

  1. fictionadvocate

    As an example of better science journalism, here’s a recent article that cites a study, describes the study, interviews the people who conducted the study, and draws its conclusions directly from the study — and never stoops to making the readers feel like this is a story about them, personally. Plus, the study is really cool. Bravo.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/health/06mind.html

  2. samsamsam

    So, this post wasn’t prompted by my recent comment on your James Woods fill-in-the-blank was it. I apologize for not citing my source; I was cooking while the segment was running and only gleaned the gist without really understanding the meat or noticing the source. My most sincere apologies for not thouroughly researching my omments. I promise you I will follow Strunk and White rules for reference from here on.

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