Monday, March 10, 2008

Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog
Beware the underdog narrative in science journalism. This narrative severely misrepresents how science really works. It's designed to elicit our sympathy for a not-yet-established theory, maybe one that is socially attractive, and to arouse our indignation against the staid community of eggheaded scientists. This underdog narrative plays on our emotions, it makes for a good read, and helps us feel good about ourselves when we stand up for our convictions.

What gets lost is the scientific method, the idea that novel proposals need to be thoroughly vetted and tested, no matter how intuitively attractive they are.

I link because I've written on this before in various places. I usually describe it as Hollywood Science: You know, the outsider, working by and large alone, shunned by colleagues for his/her "unconventional" views, who finally triumphs against all odds and the dogmatic dismissals of said colleagues. Makes a great story -- sometimes it even comes close to reality -- but is hardly ever the case.

Darwin, though he did work alone (as did a lot of gentlemen scientists back then), was not much of an outsider. He'd published a lot of more ordinary works (e.g., barnacles) and was considered a member in good standing of the science community. And all of it went through a long vetting process, not just "accepted as dogma" from the get-go.