When Science Goes Bad
Words are tools. When attempting to do good work it is important to use your tools wisely. That is why I can get bent out of shape (you know what I mean) when scientists and reporters of science are sloppy with language. Sure, cliches and metaphors can add excitement to reporting, but bad writing can also distort our understanding. Yes, even science writing.
Science writing matters because it has the potential to mislead nearly as much as its promise to enlighten. As a skeptic I read critically, starting with the title. When I encounter slightly bad or outright bogus writing, I note it. In an effort to entertain and educate, I have created my own awards for bad science writing in article titles: “The Sloppies.” I now share past notables with you.
But first: Can science really go bad? Okay, the above subtitle might be a tad misleading. Yet in the text beyond the bigger font I can clarify what I mean. Scientists, like all of us, sometimes lean on cliches and conventions of speech to jazz up the presentation of their arguments. They may even add big-band words and linguistic pyrotechnics. Of course, an editor wanting to grab the attention of readers is understandable, so I expect it more in a title.
Still, titles matter. Science reporting for a general audience tends to be both superficial and exaggerated. To better inform people about the enterprise of science — including the importance of precision in both mute measurement and lively dialogue — why not start with the title?
As a 360 degree skeptic I do not have two lights in my head: a green one for science and all the stuff I like, a red one for non-science and everything else. Instead, I have an active doubt-meter. Most material I read — even science — will cause the meter to twitch. Some material makes the needle sway wildly. One of the things that makes my doubt-meter daily come alive is bad science writing. It is far too common. In my previous blogs I have critiqued and criticized dozens of articles by scientists, science departments and science organizations. What follows is the best of the worst from a year’s worth of reading.
If you care about both science and language you might enjoy my awards, the 2009 Sloppies.* So without further ado, let’s dim the lights, quiet the orchestra, and . . .
Category One: Words Wearing Pants
Is it just me, or does this title stink like rotten fish: Computers That Understand How You Feel? Okay, title’s don’t carry odors, unless they are of the printed, scratch-and-sniff variety. But that’s obvious. Is it likewise obvious that computers can’t understand feelings? Last I checked, computers lack a limbic system, adrenal glands, etc. True, the human propensity to engage in animism and anthropomorphism runs deep. Our kind likely spent much of its early years evading predators and chasing prey, so I understand why we might over-extend the tendency to infer agency behind phenomena. This over-extension of a cognitive propensity probably plays a huge role in the perception of purportedly supernatural events. But science is not religion. Science writing should be as down-to-earth as practical.
As contrast, in another piece, A Fine-tooth Comb To Measure The Accelerating Universe. I have no problem with the use of “fine-tooth comb.” Those words were clearly used to describe a new technology. The cosmos has no hair, so there is little risk of misunderstanding. What about this headline: Black Holes Have Simple Feeding Habits? Does it belong in a different category? Upon reading that one I couldn’t help but groan, in part because the animistic language extended into the article, potentially misguiding readers (e.g., “This confirms that the feeding patterns for black holes of different sizes can be very similar.”) But hold on. It gets worse. Envelope please . . . .
> Sloppy Grande – That Car Just Winked at Me
Did you know that automobiles have personalities? Yes, they do. How do I know? The title of a news release told me so: Life Is A Highway: Study Confirms Cars Have Personality. Actually, the study found not that cars have personalities, but that we perceive personality attributes in cars via our acts of association. Is this not an important distinction?
> Sloppy Extra Grande – That Water is Alive!
Forgive me for getting my undies in a bunch over a matter of mere semantics, but I believe that if you slant the reporting of a scientific finding like this — Water Is No Passive Spectator Of Biological Processes: It Is An Active Participant — believers in soft-brained woo such as homeopathy are likely to take your verbal polish and peddle it as support for their non-science.
What is active water, you may wonder? Does it have feelings, motives, memory? Nope. In active water the molecules are differently “networked,” resulting a change in their absorption of radiation. It seems the water plays a more dynamic role in a chemical process than is customary. Is this truly an active role? Would we similarly claim that in the gymnastics routines of the 2008 Summer Olympics the floor mat played an active role? I don’t think so. This award is well-deserved.
Category 2 – Inflationary Verbiage
The logical fallacy known as the “straw man” argument entails taking one aspect of your opponent’s position and inflating it to ridiculous proportion, making it easier to stick a pin in. There is a converse twin of this tendency: exaggerating an aspect of your own position to make it more impressive and persuasive. The second category of the Sloppies goes to headlines that distort through exaggeration.
A case could be made for this title: Report Warns Of Jury Service ‘Trauma.’ Sure, the writer used half- quotes as an attorney might add a small-print endnote to a legal document. But the news release did go on to claim that jury duty can cause a traumatizing of jurors not unlike PTSD.
Holy smokes, that’s serious!
To discover a type and quantity of data weighty enough to warrant the use of the word, trauma, you would have had to read the normal-font sentences deep in an article. And you wouldn’t have found anything impressive. The only potent data was this: “An average of 390,000 British citizens serve on juries each year.” Okay, so the topic is potentially important. And?
Sometimes a chief-with-big-claim turns out to be a squaw-of-little-evidence.
> Sloppy Grande – Time Traveling Children
Did you know that children can travel in time? Before you dismiss this as a flight of science-fiction fancy, know this; I learned about it in a real science article: Back To The Future: Psychologists Examine Children’s Mental Time Traveling Abilities. Okay, so they travel in time mentally. Nonetheless, the word curmudgeon in me reacted this way, “What the heck is ‘mental time travel’ — besides a sexy and less- scientific way to refer to a type of cognition?” In the article I discovered it is this: The ability to comprehend and plan for the future.
Oh please. Someone has been watching too much Star Trek. If talking about the ability to “realistically appraise a hypothetical situation,” why instead use the term “mental time travel?”
> Sloppy Extra Grande – A Blue-Ribbon Brain
Talk about bad science writing. I can hardly read this without being overcome by intellectual dry heaves: Our Unconscious Brain Makes The Best Decisions Possible.
I wonder, does the unconscious brain exist on a higher plane of our spinal column? Was this piece of poor reporting intentionally penned to stimulate the over-extending-the-meaning-of-science-findings chakra of New Agers?
The article starts off with this doozy of a statement: “Researchers at the University of Rochester have shown that the human brain — once thought to be a seriously flawed decision maker — is actually hardwired to allow us to make the best decisions possible with the information we are given.”
Hard-wired? Hard-wired! I guess all those folks at roulette tables in Las Vegas should happily leave the red or black decision up to their unconscious brain. What about the decision to book a flight to that Mecca for the statistically-impaired in the first place? Should this decision be left to the unconscious brain as well? What about the decision on whether or not to have a second and third martini?
What the researchers did find was that most of their subjects were better at estimating a large-number solution to a question of “probabilistic distributions” when they viewed a brief selection of data versus more data. Don’t ask me why the heading to an article announcing their finding didn’t reflect that idea. Instead, the title read, Our Unconscious Brain Makes The Best Decisions Possible. Where’s my Alka Seltzer, and a large pin to stick in this overblown claim?
Category 3 – The Appeal of Wiggle Room
While general and/or vague terms work wonders in astrological forecasts, they are a serious pitfall in science. If you want people to understand exactly what you mean, use more exact words. Science lacking concern for precision is not science. Okay, in terms of advertising and promoting science, some shortcuts are necessary and even desirable. But don’t throw the precise baby out with the overly- technical bathwater. One needn’t transform science findings into a verbal inkblot to make them provocative.
> Sloppy Grande – Is Love at First Sight Really Love?
Early one morning news of research into love got me in the mood. For science. But once again, while the title successfully seduced me, the body of the piece let me down. How’s this for an opening line: Is Love At First Sight Real? Geneticists Offer Tantalizing Clues. Wow. Love at first sight encoded in our genes? The article began with the statement that the compatibility males and females find can be attributed to genetic endowment. Intriguing, eh? How did the scientists make the above determination? By studying fruit flies.
Em… Is it just me, or have the researchers and writers taken liberties with the word “love”?
Do fruit flies love? If so, do they love in the same senses humans do? I tend to doubt it. Sure, there may be some gross behavioral similarities. But when was the last time a fruit fly splashed on cologne and treated the object of his longing to a nice meal? (Pheromones and food offerings . . . hmm . . . maybe we aren’t that different.)
> Sloppy Extra Grande – The Therapeutic Benefits of Tree-Hugging
When I read this headline, Science Suggests Access To Nature Is Essential To Human Health my immediate thought was, Sure, air and water and plant-based foodstuffs are all essential to our health. But then I began to wonder about the variables expressed in the title. Nature—that’s one huge variable.
Human health—broad also. And the alleged relation between them—essential. What constitutes essential?
Would the article body clarify and convince me? Sadly not. Rather, it caused my doubt-meter to have a grand mal seizure. What I found was a hodge-podge of allegations backed by mere surveys and statistical seek-and-finds. Do any of the following claims cause your doubt-meter to twitch?
a) Elderly adults tend to live longer if their homes are near a park or other green space, regardless of their social or economic status. No data provided. b) Children with ADHD have fewer symptoms after outdoor activities in lush environments. c) Residents of public housing complexes report better family interactions when they live near trees. d) Considerable research has found that violence and aggression are highest in urban settings devoid of trees and grass. e) Roughly 7 percent of the variation in crime that can’t be accounted for by other factors can be accounted for by the amount of trees.
While I am a true environmentalist in my values, and I greatly enjoy walking among trees and watching for birds and other wildlife, I don’t believe trees have magical powers. Yes, they filter rainwater and help purify the air. They do real things in the real world. A more scientific attitude would, in the least, point to how the trees are essential to health.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hug a tree. It’s probably good for my love life, too.
Category 4 – Have I Got a Deal for You
Scientists aren’t salesmen. Granted, promoting and popularizing their work is important, as is striving to persuade their peers of the validity of their conclusions. However, the moment a researcher brings a curvaceous, bikini-clad assistant on stage to operate the PowerPoint remote, be wary. The information should sell itself. Similarly, if you ever encounter words in science writing meant only to excite and entice, be wary.
> Sloppy Grande – A Diamond in the Headline but Bologna in the Body
Consider out this headline—one that is sure to make the woo-meisters get tingly all-over:
Wrist Acupuncture Or Acupressure Prevents Nausea From Anesthesia, Review Finds.
Wow. A meta-analysis from the Chinese University of Hong Kong has concluded that stimulating the P6 meridian point with acupuncture or acupressure “prevents” nausea. Prevents! Talk about a powerful, Wonder Woman word. Woohoo! Acupuncture works!
Or does it? In the last section of the news release you will find the actual scientific finding. And it ain’t nearly what it’s been trumpeted to be. A clarification of the numbers leads to this: 20% of subjects did not feel nauseous when given a “sham” therapeutic treatment. When treated with acupuncture or acupressure, 25% of people did not feel nauseous.
Woohoo! Stimulating the P6point is 5% more effective than a sham treatment! Um…. Stop the presses. Or, if you do roll them, in the very least, please add may or can before the “prevent” in the title.
> Sloppy Extra Grande – A Totally Empty Title
Finally, and perhaps most bogusly, in an actual paper-based article in Discover magazine (January, 2009) I bumped smack into this title:PHYSICISTS LAUNCH SEARCH FOR THE GOD PARTICLE. I wondered, Must they really use such an unscientific term in large-font bold? A reading of the article itself revealed no other use of the word God nor mention of anything remotely religious or supernatural. And it occurred to me: that is exactly how many educated people use the term—as an empty title. There is nothing substantial behind it. No real-world qualities, characteristics or attributes that could differentiate it from, say, an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-fabulous homosexual alien. (We are talking about the putative designer of the universe, aren’t we? Not that there is anything wrong with it—the homosexual designer part. Though I may be biased against aliens.)
Why did the word “God” appear in the title alone? Because the rest was 100% science. Oh lard, how I wish science writers would refrain from inserting bologna into headlines.
Category 5 – Applauding the Positive & Dishonorable Mentions
Critical thinking and reading entails more than pointing out the bad, the negative, the weak, the stinky. It is also important to acknowledge and applaud the positive. And so, with a full slate of Sloppies already awarded, and the band starting to wane, why not end with a shout-out for work well done? Here is a title to a press release I really appreciated: Writing After Terrorist Attack Has Positive Medium Term Effects. “Medium Term Effects” — superb! Too often treatment benefits are assumed to be permanent or long lasting.
Words carry both overt and implied messages, intentional and unintentional meanings. Yes, take some liberties when you must. But do so knowing the hazards. The poetic and colloquial understanding of words may seem a trivial matter to hard-core scientists, but these can strongly influence the feelings and thoughts of readers.
One more time: Words are tools. Scientists and critical thinkers alike should be nearly as precise with them as they are with their data-gathering and measuring instruments. Not exactly—but more nearly.