When prestigious academics evaluate the vita (i.e., publication list) of another academic, they want to see only top journals listed there. A vita with five top journal articles and ten medium journal articles looks worse to them than a vita with just five top articles; if you can’t publish in the very top journals, they’d rather you didn’t publish at all.
Readers expecting such exaggeration would be exactly the fear as far as scientists are concerned, though not a utilitarian justification of keeping quiet. Readers don't expect just learn to expect exaggeration peacefully - they put blame for it on someone. Some of that goes to scientists.
Robin: " There is a vast steady rain of small science news out there to which the public seems to hardly react at all."
Such as this one, where, Livermore scientists confidently declare they'll have fusion tech by this summer:
Now, I'm certainly apprehensive, but then what do I know? All I know is that if you are really going to have fusion by this summer, that is huge news -- and yet as far as I know no one really is talking about it.
That would still do net harm, as it would reduce the ability of scientists and journalists to communicate actually important and dramatic results. Dilution of any reputational currency, be it fiat money, facebook friends, grades, or reports of breakthroughs is inflationary and potentially destructive of information.
BTW, I'd like some data to confirm the claim that 5 articles in top journals is better to publish than 5 in top journals and 10 in other journals. That doesn't ring true to me.
Scientists appear to view explanations of their findings, whether high or low confidence, to the public at large to be a fairly low status activity. However, wouldn't it also be something of a capital preservation exercise for scientists to themselves reveal preliminary findings publicly, with the necessary caveats and in a manner over which they have control, pending formal findings, than have reporters selectively do so?
This would, to some degree, minimise sexed up reporting, ensure that the scientists' findings are not revealed, or selectively revealed, by some other source before they are formally presented and would leave the scientists relatively free to conduct further evaluations with minimal disruption. There is some risk in presenting preliminary findings if later formal findings turn out to be less significant than anticipated. However, this could be minimised by limiting definitive statements and conclusions drawn at the preliminary stage.
michael, it could be that readers expect such exaggeration, so no net harm done.
I simply don't see any plausible hypotheses as to how this could *not* be true. Selection that we have little reason to doubt exists guarantees that reporters will be like this. How often do you see science stories which emphasize the speculativeness of a story or which try to communicate precisely how strong the evidence is? It simply wouldn't fit into the "science story" format.
Well, reaction is a different thing. Lots of people don't react to science news; lots of people don't even react to news about climate change, which is well popularized and generally goes in the same direction. People don't necessarily act on what scientists tell them, but they do tend to understand science news as a representation of what scientists believe with certainty. (And then reject the scientists if it turns out not to be true.)
The tendency to only publicize fairly certain findings may magnify this tendency in the public, though. I'll hear statements like "Those scientists are always changing their minds!" (as a statement of scientists' unreliability) instead of "Those scientists are never certain."
We only need to know whether the public would overreact wastefully to alien news, not all kinds of science news. Alien signal news is sexy, so I think we would over-react to events which have only a small chance of being real.
Perhaps the reaction will be harmless - lots of news stories people enjoy reading. Perhaps it will be harmful as Davies says and make it hard for the scientists to get their work done.
What do you think are the downsides of waiting, especially given the longest you could in practice go without leaks would be a few days?
I think most scientists believe "reporters are biased to present low probability news as if it were high probability". Most science reporting in major newspapers or even in some science magazines (like Discover) seems to conflate speculative theories with more well-established science; it tends to read to me like the writers simply don't understand probability enough to understand the difference.
Thank goodness that the learned astronomers (peace be upon them!) are making sure that we uneducated, ignorant, and irrational peasants won't have our delicate, unstable, and inferior brains damaged by exposure to potentially confusing or disturbing information sent to us by space aliens! Surely, these deeply noble folk have only our interests at heart! See: http://www.youtube.com/watc... .
Jess and Robert, are you sure you guys are correcting sufficiently for observation selection? The cases where the public overreacts are far more visible than the cases where they under-react. There is a vast steady rain of small science news out there to which the public seems to hardly react at all.
I agree with Jess, those things seem very probably true.
There may be a status thing here - 'we scientists know better than you all leave it to us'. In the situation Davies is describing that's probably a reasonable opinion! Popular science reporting is constantly spreading results that are marginally significant and won't be repeated. Knowledge of science would bet better if we weren't constantly bombarded by such misinformation. At a glance, a cost-benefit analysis of 'reveal SETI information' immediately versus wait suggests waiting is the better idea.
non-scientists are biased to overreact to low confidence news, or that reporters are biased to present low probability news as if it were high probability, and non-scientists gullibly believe them. I have not seen any systematic evidence presented in support of these claims, however.
I think both of these are definitely true, but I am especially surprised that you aren't confident about the first. People modify their diets all the time based off of summaries of sketchy studies. (I think eggs are a classical example of a food that has gone in and out of fashion amongst non-scientists a number of times based off flimsy evidence). People believe the new, extremely speculative theories in physics as if they were gospel. People believe historical reconstruction on the history channel. Etc., etc.
Basically, most people will take anything reported as science to be true so long as they aren't emotionally or materially invested in it.