In response to Garth George's dig at science…

By Grant Jacobs 21/11/2010 15


SUNDAY RANT: A local media columnist throws a few brickbats at science. I toss a few back and give thanks for good comments.

Catching up on the New Zealand Herald website science page, which occasionally features our own work, I see that commentator Garth George recently chose to make science his rag doll for a day.

Maybe it was a slow day at the office and he simply ran out of better ideas?

Then again, looking around the ’net this doesn’t seem to be new for him. (I’m not in the habit of reading his column, so I wouldn’t know of-hand.)

But whatever.

Let’s look at what George has to say, what was said in reply, and add a few of my own thoughts.

While the title may not be his, it sweeps with a very broad brush indeed: ’Research offers little to human wisdom’ as if all research were useless.

Well done to whoever wrote the title.

Let’s consider George is only poking at human behavioural science as the first paragraph intimates.

In the opening paragraphs, I’m unsure who George is trying to slate: news editors, researchers, or both :-

Day after day in this newspaper and others we are presented with stories in which the first sentence ends with the words “a new survey shows” or “new research reveals” or “scientists have discovered”.

These items seem to have an irresistible appeal to news editors seeking urgently to fill inconvenient holes in news pages.

Few of these “research” results add anything to the sum of human knowledge for often all they do is confirm “scientifically” what we sentient humans have known either intuitively or by experience ever since we put childhood behind us.

Few would disagree with the first paragraph: tired ways of presenting science aren’t helpful. Some of the editorial choices do leave science-savvy readers wondering. The third, though, reveals a lack of understanding of why research is done.

If he is to chastise others, he ought to set a standard high enough not to be criticised himself. Or, as I love to say, you’ve got to understand what you are criticising. (I get my cue from misappropriating from Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’: ’You can’t criticise what you don’t understand’.)

I’m not a fan of research that is too obvious myself. But calling research out on the basis of ’what we sentient humans have known either intuitively or by experience’ is wrong.

Intuitive notions are often wrong. To resolve different possibilities needs controlled studies, not intuition. Calling on ‘I knew that anyway’ doesn’t quite work. You also need to look at the deeper aims of the research, than taken it solely at face value. More on these later.

Let’s first look at some of what he has to say.

George cites a study he reports was described as ’when it comes to crossing the road, humans act more like lemmings than rational people when they blindly follow other pedestrians’.

First an aside, a nitpick. The only match to this exact phrase in a google search are his own words. It’s pity he doesn’t give the source if was print-only. Alternatively, if you relax the search you find near matches from many sources, but if he’s paraphrasing why then the direct quote?

But never mind that.

In reply he retorts:

So what? How many of us, cocooned in our own little mental world at the lights, have taken a step thinking the lights have changed when someone in front does, only to stop dead a split second later when we realise that the silly bugger has decided to jaywalk?

This coverage does better, linking to to the actual research – allowing readers to check it for themselves (assuming you have access) – and raising the point of it from asking the researcher: the potential relationship to ’herding, flocking and shoaling behaviors.’ (I’m not advocating the work as good or not here, just that relating the intended aim accurately might help understand why it was done – the thing George is criticising.)

As for George’s thinking: the underlying issue would seem to be not that we do it, but why.

What is it that makes us inclined to follow another’s actions? A social meme that teaches us to follow a leader? A evolutionary relic of a safety-in-numbers herd instinct?

Before you can get onto the question of why, you need to establish that it really is a established cause and effect pattern of people following others (e.g. by using social cues), not a statistical coincidence from independent events happening in similar time frames. At lot of research is about laying the foundations, determining if a particular potential causal relationship is actual rather than apparent.

Then there is his dismissal of work linking texting with other social behaviour:

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the researchers that they have the whole thing back to front – that if a teen is bonking, or being bonked by, four or more partners then he or she is sure to be texting madly to set up assignations.

Again, I’m not interested in if the research is sound or not, but his reasoning in dismissing it.

He offers one hypothesis, as if the researchers didn’t – or couldn’t – think of it. He might ask of himself, how would he distinguish his hypothesis from that perhaps youngster more sociable in one way might be more more sociable in other ways too? Perhaps by research and statistics?

More important as one reader (Reynold, 01:57PM Friday, 19 Nov 2010) explained:

… study on texting does not assign causation, it only says there is a higher liklyhood of if X applies then Y is likly to occur, not X causes Y. Additionally, the study uses the past tense, had, when talking about sexual partners. However, Garth uses this to imply the oh so degenerative youth of today practice polyamory, instead of a series of monogamous relationships.

So, according to Reynold, not only does George display lack of understanding of what the research was doing (yet boldly going forth and criticising anyway) he has slipped a personal moral view in on the results after the fact. Good catch, I think.

This work was reported from a conference proceedings as a press release. The conference abstract for this presentation is available for those that want to read it. (I have no idea if it has been published in the peer-reviewed literature prior to the conference. If not, you might also look at it as reportage getting ahead of scientific peer review.)

It doesn’t only look at sex as readers of George’s description might think, but considers other risky behaviours and health issues such as smoking, suicide, depression, binge drinking and so on. He also leaves out that the work is comparing ‘hyper-texting’, texting more than 120 messages per school day, with these behaviours, not kids who text a few more messages than their peers. I’m left wondering if George made any effort to check what the work actually says.

I have no idea of George’s personal views on religion (although his earlier moralising might indicate his position), but his reference that ’the bible was right’ reveals another fallacy (argument from authority), most easily revealed by asking ‘how do you know it’s right?’:

That only goes to show that the Bible has it right – one man for one woman for life, and “you shall not commit adultery” – and that God didn’t proclaim such principles to spoil our fun but rather to enhance it.

The answer would be that he would not know unless be showed evidence from research – the very thing he is objecting to!

I could rattle on. It’d be too easy.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I sometimes wonder at the research reported in papers. Hell, I often do. Being excessively polite about it, some of it isn’t the best. But to dismiss research because of media reportage – not the work itself – or that he would prefer intuition over analysis, well, silly.

A key element in modern science, that commenter Melinky explains well, is that more than anecdote or ’intuitive feelings’ are needed to resolve what is right (see comment on 01:15PM Thursday, 18 Nov 2010):

Your [George’s] examples of biblical facts and sentient human “intuition” is a prime example why scientists should definitely be encouraged to back up claims of phenomena with solid research. Without the benefit of this scientific research you so disparage we would still be treating mental health issues as good old fashioned demonic possession and women would still be considered lesser beings than men. It’s common sense don’t you know?

I wonder if it has occurred to him that in criticising these reports he is unwittingly holding a mirror up to himself, that he’s doing the very thing he accuses news editors of?

As Mark K writes (02:49PM Thursday, 18 Nov 2010),

I think the author misses the point. It is often not the research that is bad but the way the media picks and chooses parts of it to suit. Just like this article really.

Understanding the aims of the research matters.

The actual aims, not what they might seem at first glance. This itself is part of the updated aims for the Ig Noble Awards, that celebrate achievements ’that first make people laugh, and then make them think.’ (My underline added.)

I think those who replied explaining the science did pretty well. Nice work.

Finally, I recommend Garth George read the Science Media Centre’s booklet Desk Guide for Covering Science.

Update: silly typo squashed.


Other articles on Code for life:

Should media only report facts and leave interpretation to the universities?

Desk Guide for Covering Science, and academic conferences

To link or not to link: mainstream media and no links at all

How long does it take you to write a science blog post?

Professor Richard Quinn responds to exam cheats


15 Responses to “In response to Garth George's dig at science…”

  • Good post, far more measured and polite than I could ever be if discussing Garth George.

    I think I have read only one of his articles that wasn’t complete drivel, although to be fair I avoid his writing, so might have missed a moment of worthwhile coherence.

    Melinky’s comment that you quote has him completely nailed. He’s just a (grumpy old) anti-scientific religious bigot, I suspect.

  • far more measured and polite than I could ever be if discussing Garth George.

    I have read very little of his earlier work (hardly any at all in fact), so I haven’t a pattern to work off. I just hope that the measured commentary to his remarks — both in the thread in the original article and mine here — can help counter some of the errors.

    I added a comment in the original thread about midday pointing readers this way, but moderating seems to be slow (in the weekend, at least).

    Since you wrote I’ve read this older article of his: Ancient code reveals itself in spring.

    The introductory blurb may not be his (?), but it calls geneticists “genetic scientists”(sigh) and in the piece proper George writes:

    Because you can guarantee that, like genetic engineers who want to alter the natural attributes of humans, animals and plants, scientists would by now be doing their damndest to change the weather – and that sort of interference, I suspect, would soon trigger a third world war.

  • Heh. He even topped himself. He practically admitted he has stepped off the sidewalk to follow a jaywalker.

    But he never stopped to consider what a common sense person might seek. To try and answer the BIG question: “That’s interesting….why did I DO that?”

    “No bullshit detector in this one Master”. Sad really. And unfortunately, people take note of what he comments.

    Part of the problem is that paper fillers are lazy. They will plonk this “research” he speaks of into newspapers with little investigation. The DomPost Monday 15th Nov, on B1, the head World News page, informed us that ” ‘Pioneering’ astrology analysis may help women get pregnant after IVF treatment has failed”.

    Words failed me. I choked on my weetbix. …..Maybe I got the paper’s section name wrong. Was it Woo Noos rather than World News?

  • Nice piece, Grant 🙂 Alas! we are blessed (?) with Garth’s ponderings in the Herald each Wednesday. One part of the paper I usually don’t read as otherwise I end up muttering rude things into my muesli & this does nothing for domestic bliss over breakfast.
    ‘Pioneering’ astrology analysis may help women get pregnant after IVF treatment has failed In the Dom? For realsies? I am tempted to blog that one myself, could be entertaining!

  • “‘Pioneering’ astrology analysis may help women get pregnant after IVF treatment has failed In the Dom”

    For real? That belongs in the OMG file. (I get a subscribers login page when I try google that article, FWIW.)

  • I find Garth’s writing to be somewhat useful. Without it, I might start thinking that everyone is generally decent and capable of forming a valid argument and following it through. Shallow and misleading reporting or opining on science is sadly fairly common from what I see (though getting better, slowly). George manages to elevate this to an art form can apply is shallow and misleading opining to b pretty much any topic he sets his mind to. Breakdowns like this are beyond my patience, they are however welcome and entertaining.

    Try to read at least one of Garth’s columns every month. Sure, it’ll leave you feeling a little dirty, but you be a lot less complacent. 🙂

  • […] Over at Grant’s, a commenter on one of his posts noted that, in its ‘World News’ pages, the Dominion-Post included an article entitled: “Pioneering’ astrology analysis may help women get pregnant after IVF treatment has failed”. The commenter said he’d nearly choked on his weetbix when he saw that, & I can sympathise. […]

  • had a lively debate on this with a group of journos on Facebook (of all places). Many sympathised with Garth, suggesting he was pointing out the failings in the media’s coverage of research – much of which is barely disguised PR from organisations seeking to maintain their funding positions. The rest is often either wire stories or quirky research popular for its novelty value. That led onto a discussion about whether the media should be covering research to which I answered YES! Others didn’t seem quite so convinced suggesting this type of analysis should be left to scientific journals and magazines.

  • There are a number of columnists that make the occasional sneering remark about science – Joe Bennett has (which got a letter to the editor from me in response) and so has Rosemary McLeod (which they didn’t publish my response to 🙁 ) She seems to have some perverse few about science = men in white coats doing strange things to lab rats, if I recall what she wrote. Very mad scientist.

  • suggesting he was pointing out the failings in the media’s coverage of research

    Had he done that, I’d have written a quite different response! He certainly starts with a nod in that direction, but that done spends the rest of his article criticising the research itself, not the the editorial choice to present that particular material, nor the style of media coverage of it.

    As you know I dislike science reporting that are barely re-written takes on the PR. “Light” novelty-value takes on work have their own problems I think, Many seem guilty of not looking at the real aims, but a surface impression they can make of the work that can be further strung out to make some sort of entertaining fluffy nonsense better suited to one of the lesser gossip magazines.

    However, even if the choice of science and it’s presentation is poor, it’s wrong to criticise the science itself for the media coverage of it or thinking ‘intuition already tells us this’.

  • Yes, this guy is obviously not a deep thinker, and his reasoning seems to be clouded by Xtian prejudice, which puts him in no position to pass any enlightened comment on science.

    Yes, social science does often amount to documenting things that are terribly obvious. We may not need further research to confirm what we all know, but there is still difficulty distinguishing between what we know and what we believe. As a Xtian George would seem to prefer the latter. But even if we all agree that, say, better education produces people who on average will earn more, it is still useful to find out (by scientific research) just HOW much spending on education will achieve how much economic return. Sometimes it is necessary to put actual numbers on things. George might have a point if he distinguished between quantitative and qualitative research.

    There’s another innate problem with social science: some aspects of human behaviour are too complex to study by proper, rigorous application of the scientific method. There are too many variables at work, assumptions being made, and limitations of experimental design (e.g. animals and molecules can’t lie but humans can). Social science is also, I think particularly highly politicised, so that experimental design flaws, even manipulation, are very common. More common, I suspect, than in the other “harder” sciences. Take that Dept of Justice study a few years ago, in which ‘violence against women’ was defined as, inter alia, “trying to stop a woman from doing something that she wants to do.” Even the most ardent feminist would have to concede that was a bit sweeping. Any data obtained using that definition would be flawed. If George had held that particular report up to ridicule, then I’d be right with him.

    Another problem specific to social science is that everyone believes they already know a lot about humans, so we all have preconceived views that colour the way we view a piece of research about human behavior. Instinctively we want to agree with research that fits our pre-existing beliefs, or challenge it if it doesn’t. Many of us then make confident assertions about the validity without knowing anything about the quality of the research. But it’s different with ‘arder’ sciences. Few of us know enough about, say, plant chemistry, to have any views that might inform any response to research claiming that broccoli is rich in antioxidants. So we’re less likely to question it. The ‘harder’ the science, the more difficult it is to question its findings because the fewer people there are who know enough to have a confident and/or informed, contrary opinion.

    However, I have a grain of sympathy with George, because in this age of disinformation, we get a lot of contradictory data (eg. on climate change) from sources whose reliability we cannot always gauge. Unfortunately the news media have a policy of dealing with this by allowing both sides equal airing which means cranks get just as much voice as experts. Sometimes there’s a fine line between the two. The news media say they’re giving both sides a ‘fair’ airing when all they’re doing is muddying the waters while exploiting the commercial value of maximum airtime, screen time and column centimetres to carry more advertising or sell more newspapers. Given today’s market-driven model of journalism, I don’t think I am being too cynical in saying this.

    Our news media fail to hire journalists with good general knowledge, training in science, and a general sense of inquisitiveness. Just look at the disinformation we’ve been getting about methane, oxygen, combustion, etc in recent reportage on the Pyke River mine. It all just makes me despair.

  • If George had held that particular report up to ridicule, then I’d be right with him.

    I take your general point — I don’t like silly studies as much as the next person — but, just to be clear, the key point what I was taking on it wasn’t what he chose to hold up, or the justifications (financial or otherwise) in doing that work, but how he chose to argue against them.

    Another problem specific to social science …

    It is easier for intuitive notions to come into play with “everyday” things – as you’ll know that’s one of the reasons for testing things in a way that seeks to overcome any “intuitive” bias, hence the development of “the scientific method”, etc., etc. And, as you say, “him v. her” “balance” isn’t helpful for things based on evidence, as opposed to opinion.

    Our news media fail to hire journalists with good general knowledge, training in science, …

    There’s a model for science writing that in principle might help with this I wouldn’t mind exploring (read: write a blog article on) that I hope to write about … when I find time!

  • It would be nice if one of the recent visitors to this article would enlighten me as to who is pointing readers to this older post!

    It’d let me join in the discussion (should there be one) and see what’s being said. (Google isn’t helping me here…)

    – Thanks.