#243) The Mess that is Science?

November 1st, 2012

Is the decline that affected science journalist Jonah Lehrer symptomatic of science today? There’s trouble in River City. Steven Jay Gould said it long ago — that scientists are only human. He should have said it for science journalists as well. Nowadays it’s being said more explicitly in terms of everyone’s addiction to positives, even if they are false. Once again, in the end, it all tracks back to storytelling. You want to understand a lot about humanity, start with how we are obsessed with stories. More importantly, this is SUCH a good article by Boris Kachka on Jonah Lehrer in New York magazine, and with even better comments!

JONAH LEHRER done made a heap o’ trouble. He was a bright, articulate skyrocketing science journalist who fell victim to over-reaching. He plagiarized, he fabricated, and everyone loved it. As much as everyone loves a good story (photo from Kachka’s New York article)

bad boy


A friend of mine watched the discussion I took part in last week on “The Point” (the last post here) and noted I said that Obama is a lousy orator. She said someone should have stopped me right there to say no, he’s not. I went on to clarify (sort of) what I meant — that he’s not a very good storyteller — but she’s right — he’s a good orator and someone should have stopped me. But they didn’t. Why not?

At another point I mentioned that scientists are “the designated drivers of the information world” — stuck with having to try to maintain 100% accuracy of information in our world. But even they fall victim to the poor programming of the human mind — specifically our vulnerability to good stories (positive patterns). And it turns out science journalists and their eager audience can be even more vulnerable. Ugh.

naughty boy


Last spring I was about a third of the way through Jonah Lehrer’s book, “How We Decide,” deeply impressed with his ability to write when a sort of stench began to emerge from the pages. It was caused by a number of troubling articles about his bad habits as a journalist — that with his third book, “Imagine,” suddenly it was being realized there were major problems with his writing. MAJOR problems. So major that the publishers pulled back the entire book. And with that, the formerly glorious writing career of Jonah Lehrer began to collapse like a house of cards as all of his previous work came into question.

Now Boris Kachka has written a fairly ruthless article for New York magazine (which has even better comments!). As one commenter said, “This is juicy!” It is. Unfortunately.

(By the way, just about the time I think that blog comments are an utterly useless waste of human effort — like I love Andy Revkin’s blog, but unfortunately he’s plagued by armies of morons who post comments from both ends of the enviro/anti-enviro spectrum — I look at the comments on this Kachka article and they are indeed really, really good — almost better reading than the article itself. why can’t other venues feature such good comments — there must be a very smart editor at work there)

The article is worth reading — every single word of it. There’s an overall nastiness — throwing barbs at everything from TED talks (definitely read, in the comments section, the rather terse defense of that institution by Tom Reilly of TED!) to “neurobabble” of today’s pop psychology writings.

But the core of what Kachka is addressing is serious. It’s what first began to spin my head exactly two years ago when David H. Freedman published his stunning article in The Atlantic about, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Medical Science” Ever since then I’ve been saying to my science friends, “Don’t you see there’s serious trouble these days in your profession?”

And last fall, when I ended my series of essays for The Atomic Bulletin by suggesting there was an emerging “glass houses” problem in the science world (that it’s hard to criticize the anti-science folks for distorting science when the noise level of the profession itself is getting so large) I was met with coldness and rebuffs from my science friends (nobody likes to have their profession criticized). But the problems are real.

Regardless, it all comes down to storytelling (i.e. telling “a compelling story” as uber-cool head Carl Zimmer puts it here) — as laid out by Kachka, like this:

“There’s a habit among science journalists to treat a single experiment as something that is newsworthy,” says the writer-psychologist Steven Pinker. “But a single study proves very little.” The lesson of the “decline effect,” as Pinker sees it, is not that science is fatally flawed, but that readers have been led to expect shocking discoveries from a discipline that depends on slow, stutter-step progress. Call it the “TED ­effect.” Science writer Carl Zimmer sees it especially in the work of Lehrer and Gladwell. “They find some research that seems to tell a compelling story and want to make that the lesson. But the fact is that science is usually a big old mess.”

The problems are systemic. They’ve been around for a long time. In fact, one commenter quotes Lehrer’s 2010 New Yorker article on “the decline effect” where he says, “”Jennions, similarly, argues that the decline effect is largely a product of publication bias, or the tendency of scientists and scientific journals to prefer positive data over null results, which is what happens when no effect is found. The bias was first identified by the statistician Theodore Sterling, in 1959, after he noticed that ninety-seven per cent of all published psychological studies with statistically significant data found the effect they were looking for.”

how interesting


I don’t know. I’m beginning to realize I’ve had a longstanding interest in this whole mess. I can think back to over 30 years ago, in graduate school, having long discussions with my marine ecologist buddies Mark Patterson and Ron Etter about Type I and Type II errors — the fact that in the science world all the focus goes on the former, with little interest in the latter. It’s always seemed like there’s an inevitability of a certain amount of error just in the scientific method itself — which is what Lehrer was pointing out in his New Yorker article.

Big mess, really. Not sure how this will all get sorted out.

Oh, well, I love this comment from Kachka’s article to finish on:

“Hey, technology is exciting– but the real work is often boring, and really hard. The problem with TED is, yes, that it is a completely self-centered locus of total suckage– but also that it is a facet of a genuinely dangerous distraction. There’s not an app for social progress, TEDbag.”