LINK: Journalist's search for counter arguments damages science

by tetsuo551 min read25th Jul 20118 comments

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I just saw this link on a pop-news site.

It's a PDF file showing how good BBC's reporting of science news is in general, but more specifically it reports about the fact that the journalists give far too much credit to arguments from people who have no scientific backing for their argument.

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/our_work/science_impartiality/science_impartiality.pdf

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The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this sort of thing is ultimately caused by the non-overlapping magisteria model. If scientific methods are thought of as something special and other, separated by context and ritual from everyday life, then when someone like your average journalist looks at scientific results, they're parsed as essentially an argument from authority and get evaluated against the opinions of other, nonscientific authorities: for example, religious or ideological. The usual responses to scientifically illiterate arguments don't help: instead of trying to get the point across that this is an invalid way of evaluating results, they usually focus on getting the lay public to accept science as a domain authority above whatever its opponent institution of the moment is -- with predictable results when you're talking to someone that identifies with that institution but not with science.

If we're interested in convincing people to accept scientific results, this suggests to me that we'd be better off downplaying the authority of the journal or institute in question, and instead trying to get people to accept scientific methods as a fully general means of problem-solving.

If scientific methods are thought of as something special and other, separated by context and ritual from everyday life, then when someone like your average journalist looks at scientific results, they're parsed as essentially an argument from authority and get evaluated against the opinions of other, nonscientific authorities

Well unless you understand the arguments underlying the science, they are arguments from authority.

Furthermore the attitude implicit in the BBC policy goes a long way toward making science even more a case of argument from authority.

Think about it, suppose you're a journalist, how do you decide which arguments have "scientific backing"? Do you

a) analyze the arguments yourself to see how valid they sound?

or

b) look at the credentials of the person making that argument?

Note that (b) is a lot easier then (a) to a reporter without much scientific training? Furthermore, even if you do analyze the arguments, you'll have to answer to your superior if you reach a conclusion that differs from (b).

It's not obvious what rule a journalist could use that is quick and easy to apply with no domain specific knowledge, would rule out taking creationism or MMR hysteria seriously, but allow taking cryonics seriously.

Compare the credentials of proponents and opponents. PhD in Christian Science vs in biology, "I have an autistic kid!" vs MD, and roughly equivalent on both sides, respectively.

Alternately, hire journalists with domain-specific knowledge. If you wanna compete with free media, have something to offer.

It's often hard to know what's a good credential in somebody else's field. Doing this requires knowing how much to trust the PhD from any particular school, how much to trust journals in the field, how much to trust the department hiring process, etc. Remember, frauds and phonies have strong incentives to look respectable, so there's a lot of mimicry in the academy.

One of the major things people typically learn while getting their PhD is who to trust in their particular subfield; this isn't something an outsider can do accurately in two minutes.

Compare the credentials of proponents and opponents. PhD in Christian Science vs in biology,

Jonathan Sarfati has a PhD in chemistry. He's a young earth creationist. William Dembski has a PhD in math. He's an ID proponent. Michael Behe is a biochemist with tenure at a major university. He's an ID proponent.

Simply working off of credentials is insufficient.

"I have an autistic kid!" vs MD, and roughly equivalent on both sides, respectively.

I would quite often go with an intelligent and reasonably motivated parent over a non-specialised MD on relevant subjects.

[-][anonymous]10y 5

This is also relevant to non-scientific issues.

Sarcasm: In order to be fair it's necessary to take both sides in to account. That's why any time a child with two fathers is on TV they need to get an anti-homosexuality bigot to complain about how unnatural it is.

For some reason the BBC doesn't tend to do this with race issues.