Media SkepticismScienceSkepticism

Science journalism…and its limits

I read this article by John Tierney recently, and wasn’t sure what to think of it at first.

He first explains the latest findings of a large study on personality traits of men and women: that is, that the personality gender gap varies from society to society, and that smaller gaps seem to be correlated with traditional agricultural societies, whereas larger gaps are associated with progressive, rich, capitalistic ones.

Granted, he throws in the token criticism from the other side, but he largely fails in educating his readers about the tentative, careful, evidence-based nature of real science.

Tierney seems to emphasize the controversial explanation-that the richer and more liberal we get, the more women and men will diverge into those dreaded social spheres of Rosseau. This offends our progressive sensibilities, and certainly forces us to rethink our social values. But unless it’s true, we shouldn’t throw feminism out the window. Not yet.

Here’s the sole criticism Tierney brings up in the article:

Some critics of this hypothesis question whether the international variations in personality have more to do with the way people in different cultures interpret questions on personality tests. (For more on this debate, go to The critics would like to see more direct measures of personality traits, and so would Dr. Schmitt.

I hate to nitpick, but–nevermind, I don’t hate it that much. The details, indeed, are the most important part of communicating science effectively-otherwise readers are raised and bred on inaccuracies, and develop erroneous opinions of science.

Cnidarians confirm the awesomeness of science. Controversial media hype--maybe not so much.

Cnidarians confirm the awesomeness of science. Controversial media hype--maybe not so much.

Nitpick: Reading Tierney’s explanation, you’d think that the critics are hearkening back to their 9th grade days of science, where you’d scribble anything on your lab report to get the “Discussion” section done. Your teacher forces you to write about weakness in your experiment, so you make up things like “maybe the ruler was wrong” or “maybe the human measurements introduced bias.”

A valid criticism, but a fairly weak one for a large published study in a fairly prominent journal. I think they would have caught that one.

What Tierney actually means-and what he, to his credit, explains in the longer post in the Tierney Lab-is something more subtle, and more important. Perhaps, when taking these personality tests, men in other countries compare their personality traits to that of a stereotypical male, and women in other countries do the same for a stereotypical female model. Maybe they aren’t comparing their traits to everyone, but to those in their social role. Granted: this probably happens in the United States, as well, but to a much lesser degree, considering the advances of feminism.

Tierney or his editors seems to have cut this explanation out for space considerations, despite the fact that he sums it up quite well in two paragraphs. Clearly the controversy is more important than the actual findings, and their reception by the scientific community.

I support interpreting the societal implications of scientific results. But hyping up debate where none exists-where scientists still remain unsure, where results still need replication, and where hypotheses remain weak-is not useful at all. Especially when the reading audience is already hostile to a science which always seems to change its mind for no good reason.

One of the main goals of science journalism should be to portray that science always has its good reasons: whether in forming a hypothesis, in criticizing studies and experimental results, or in concluding that evolution and gravity are real, well-supported phenomenon. Using science to create controversy takes it away from its natural habitat-truth-seeking-and moves it to the arena of politics and persuasion.

And nobody needs to tell the readers of the New York Times that these fields are not very sensitive about staying true to the evidence and the facts. (See: 2008 political campaigns.)

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!


  1. September 22, 2008 at 7:56 am —

    I teach senior high science, and I have to spend time getting the students to _stop_ writing made up weaknesses in their reports. “Well got the expected result, but we could have gotten a different result if we screwed up in the following ways:”
    Memo to junior high teachers: “You _don’t_ always need a hypothesis, and if you give the kids an experiment that works as designed, don’t make them invent ‘weaknesses'”

  2. September 22, 2008 at 1:17 pm —

    Your teacher forces you to write about weakness in your experiment, so you make up things like “maybe the ruler was wrong” or “maybe the human measurements introduced bias.”

    Wow, that takes me back. “We neglected to consider, um, the, uh, the resistance in the wires! Yeah.”

  3. October 12, 2008 at 12:13 pm —

    Tierny is one of the worst science writers out there. He openly says he doesn’t understand science–but that doesn’t stop him from having lots of opinions that are ill-informed and spread widely by NYT.

    Carl Zimmer does a much better job–and reading his columns won’t make your head explode 🙂

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