Jonah Lehrer and the Problems with "Pithy" Science Writing
Continued from previous page
Lehrer’s neuroscience in Imagine contains some obvious elementary errors—arguably more dangerous than a couple of manufactured Bob Dylan quotes. While Gladwell talks about our amazing powers of cognition in Blink, he doesn’t venture to give a detailed account of how these processes occur in the brain.
Perhaps, telling us about the cognitive feats would lose a huge slice of the audience, but that’s a chance you have to take if your real intention is to explain science.
In addition, these authors cherry-pick anecdotes and observations to support their claims. Selectively reporting on results that further your case (while omitting countering research), drawing causal conclusions from correlational data, and failing to reliably reproduce experiments are serious mistakes for a scientist—as they should be for a journalist, especially one who has spent sufficient time in a research lab to know better.
Our blogging culture is partly to blame for this. The demand of our 24/7 news cycle, first created by cable television, and now carried on by minute-by-minute updates on the Internet creates constant demand for new information that never quite satisfies the insatiable appetite of the limitless Web.
Scientists, meanwhile, make breakthrough discoveries once, if at all, in their lifetimes. There simply aren't enough stories in neuroscience and social psychology to report breakthrough ideas every week.
And this disconnect between science and journalism doesn't stop at timeframes.
Consider the contrast between the professions themselves. Science is not meant to be pithy or snappy. It is not even meant to be conclusive on a day-to-day basis. There is so much background literature, fact-checking, data assessment, and replication involved that the kinds of conclusions scientists come to on a monthly or even yearly basis would seem way too trivial for a news headline. Which is why reporters are constantly making science out to be what it isn’t and scientists are almost always unimpressed with journalists reporting on their work. The point is, this messiness of science with its endless years of research cannot be summed up in a few hundred words and neatly tied with a bow harboring a big idea or mindblowing theory.
What a newspaper or magazine would call ‘A model to help cure cancer,’ for instance, could realistically only be “an adaptation of a previous model to simulate cancer tissue in order to determine if it can be used to study cancer cells and eventually help find a cure.”
Want to try that for a headline? Exactly.
Confirming a hypothesis or a hunch with empirical evidence is the very essence of science, whereas in journalism—like much of the humanities—theories and schools of thought can rest on their own. However, science journalism, like science, needs to be rooted in fact and observation, without which it would lose its basis.
Another worrying feature about Gladwell and Lehrer’s general theme is the role that chance, intuition and gut reaction—things that we have no control over—play. The premise of Gladwell’s Tipping Point is that there exists a moment when an idea crosses a threshold to spread like wildfire, just by being at the right place at the right time, or being seen by the right people, and Blink waxes eloquent about the triumph of intuition and the subconscious over careful and deliberate thought.
And what is worse, reading about the power of snap judgments by a wide variety of people, one doesn’t come away with a sense that one can acquire this marvelous trait or train the brain to be intuitively right.
Lehrer has his own share of unmediated yet productive occurrences, such as, Nike’s Dan Wieden coming up with the Nike slogan after a random conversation, and Bob Dylan’s serendipitous vacation break after which, songs just started to flow.