Tag Archives: Science

Delay Cosmology

We live in an age of unusually rapid fundamental discovery. This age cannot last long; it must soon slow down as we run out of basic things to discover. We may never run out of small things to discover, but there can be only so many big things.

Such discovery brings status. Many are proud to live in the schools, disciplines, cities, or nations from which discovery is seen to originate. We are also proud to live in this age of discovery. While this discovery divides us to some extent, making us jealous of top discoverers, it unites us more I think, in pride as part of this age of discovery.

This ability to unite via our discoveries is a scarce resource that we now greedily consume, at the cost of future generations to whom they will no longer be available. Some of these discoveries will give practical help, and aid our ability to grow our economy, and thereby help future generations. For those sorts of discoveries the future may on net benefit because we discover them now, rather than later.

But many other sorts of discoveries are pretty unlikely to give practical help. By choosing to discover these today, we on average hurt future eras, depriving them of the joy and pride of discovery, and its ability to unite them around their shared status. This seems inefficient, because many kinds of discovery should get cheaper over time, because there are probably diminishing returns to the joy of more discoveries in the same generation, and because the future may have stronger needs for ways to unite them.

This all suggests that we consider delaying some sorts of discovery. The best candidates are those that produce great pride, are pretty unlikely to lead to any practical help, and for which the costs of discovery seem to be falling. The best candidate to satisfy these criteria is, as far as I can tell, cosmology.

While once upon a time advances in cosmology aided advances in basic physics, which lead to practical help, over time such connections have gotten much weaker. Today, the kinds of basic physics that cosmology is likely to help is very far from the sort that has much hope to give practical aid anytime soon. Such basic physics is thus also a sort of discovery we should consider delaying.

I’m not saying we create strong international law to prohibit such discovery. Much could go wrong with that to turn net gains into net losses. But we might at least locally offer more social disapproval and less status to such discoveries, in recognition of their greedy grab from future generations. Why praise the discoverers of today, who help little else and take glory and unity away from the future?

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Here Not Be Dragons

“Here be dragons” is a phrase used to denote dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of the medieval practice of putting dragons, sea serpents and other mythological creatures in uncharted areas of maps. (more)

Stories tend to be more interesting if they a) have characters like us, b) have extreme items, creatures, events, etc., and c) don’t seem clearly impossible. So story tellers face tradeoffs – they often try to make stories as extreme as they can without seeming impossible.

Once upon a time, a handy way to make this tradeoff was to tell stories about familiar kinds of people in far away lands. Because less was known with confidence about far away places, the “don’t seem impossible” rule constrained stories the least there. In far away places, there might plausibly be extreme animals, buildings, devices, customs, etc.

Just like parents today who conspire not to tell their kids the truth about Santa Claus, ancient travelers who visited distant places probably tended to conspire not to reveal that foreigners weren’t so strange. After all, travelers could get more approval from telling tall tales of strange things far away. And they could bond with sophisticates via winks that say “yes, you and I are smart enough to know better.” Lovers of stories, imagination, creativity, etc. who knew better probably reasoned that most people enjoy life more if they can believe in far away strangeness, and saw little harm in the exaggeration since few locals ever interacted with distant others.

Today we know too much about far away places to let ourselves set much story strangeness there. So when we want to tell strange but not impossible stories, we tend to set them in our future — the future is our go-to place for plausible strangeness. No one has actually seen the future, so no one can contradict stories about strange futures with much authority. Furthermore, lovers of imagination and creativity tend to excuse the impossibilities in such stories, because they think folks enjoy their lives better when they see anything as possible in the future.

Actually, this idea that anything will be possible in the future seems to be an axiom of faith for many. I’ve had several folks react this way to my em econ talks on this basis – how dare I forecast when we all know forecasts are impossible?

For some, believing in an anything-goes future expresses faith in human innovation and potential. For others, it says societies are too complex to be understood by simple theories. For still others, it expresses allegiance to scientific method – scientists must only say things that they can prove with theory or experiment, and if neither applies to the future scientists must stay silent about it, which in practice gives the impression that all future speculations consistent with basic science are equally valid and believable.

The big problem with anything-goes futurism is, of course, that keeps us from learning about and preparing for the actual future. If an ancient society were about to actually move en mass to a far away land, their story-inspired misconceptions about distant lands could do great harm. Alas, since our society is actually moving whole-sale and rapidly toward that supposedly anything-goes future world, our misconceptions can matter a lot.

The future will of course have some strange elements, at least to our eyes, if not to theirs. But it will be far from maximally strange. The more one learns about technology, economics, biology, etc. the fewer of our commonly-heard strange futures seem possible. No, we can’t prove much, but we can in practice learn a lot. Yes, those well-informed level-headed forecasts won’t be as creatively inspiring, won’t make for stories as fun, and may fail to affirm a faith in unlimited human potential. Our real descendants will have real limits. But they will really exist, and our actions will really matter for them.

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Not Science, Not Speculation

I often hear this critique of my em econ talks: “This isn’t hard science, so it is mere speculation, where anyone’s guess is just as good.”

I remember this point of view – it is the flattering story I was taught as a hard science student, that there are only two kinds of knowledge: simple informal intuition, and hard rigorous science:

Informal intuition can help you walk across a street, or manage a grocery list, but it is nearly hopeless on more abstract topics, far from immediate experience and feedback. Intuition there gives religion, mysticism, or worse. Hard science, in contrast, uses a solid scientific method, without which civilization would be impossible. On most subjects, there is little point in arguing if you can’t use hard science – the rest is just pointless speculation. Without science, we should just each user our own intuition.

The most common hard science method is deduction from well-established law, as in physics or chemistry. There are very well-established physical laws, passing millions of empirical tests without failure. Then there are well-known approximations, with solid derivations of their scope. Students of physical science spend years doing problem sets, wherein they practice drawing deductive conclusions from such laws or approximations.

Another standard hard science method is statistical inference. There are well-established likelihood models, well-established rules of thumb about which likelihood models work with which sorts of data, and mathematically proven ways to both draw inferences from data using likelihood models, and to check which models best match any given data. Students of statistics spend years doing problems sets wherein they practice drawing inferences from data.

Since hard science students can see that they are much better at doing problem sets than the lessor mortals around them, and since they know there is no other reliable route to truth, they see that only they know anything worth knowing.

Now, experienced practitioners of most particular science and engineering disciplines actually use a great many methods not reducible to either of these methods. And many of these folks are well aware of this fact. But they are still taught to see the methods they are taught as the only reliable route to truth, and to see social sciences and humanities, which use other methods, as hopeless delusional, wolves of intuition in sheep’s clothing of apparent expertise.

I implicitly believed this flattering story as a hard science student. But over time I learned that it is quite wrong. Humans and their civilizations have collected a great many methods that improve on simple unaided intuition, and today in many disciplines and fields of expertise the experienced and studied have far stronger capacities than the inexperienced and unstudied. And these useful such methods are not remotely we’ll summarized as formal statistical inference or deduction from well-established laws.

In economics, the discipline I know best, we often use deduction and statistical inference, and many of our models look at first glance like approximations derived from well-established fundamental results. But our well-established results have many empirical anomalies, and are often close to tautologies. We often have only weak reasons to expect many common model assumptions. Nevertheless, we know lots, much embodied in knowing when which models are how useful.

Our civilization gains much from our grand division of labor, where we specialize in learning different skills. But a cost is that it can take a lot of work to evaluate those who specialize in other fields. It just won’t do to presume that only those who use your methods know anything. Much better is to learn to become expert in another field in the same way others do; but this is usually way too expensive.

Of course, I don’t mean to claim that all specialists are actually valuable to the rest of us. There probably are many fraudulent fields, best abolished and forgotten, or at least greatly reformed. But there just isn’t a fast easy way to figure out which are those fields. You can’t usually identify a criminal just by their shifty eyes; you usually have look at concrete evidence of crime. Similarly, you can’t convict a field of fraud based on your feeling that their methods seem shifty. You’ll have to look at the details.

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Your existence is informative

Warning: this post is technical.

Suppose you know that there are a certain number of planets, N. You are unsure about the truth of a statement Q. If Q is true, you put a high probability on life forming on any given arbitrary planet. If Q is false, you put a low probability on this. You have a prior probability for Q. So far you have not taken into account your observation that the planet you are on has life. How do you update on this evidence, to get a posterior probability for Q? Since your model just has a number of planets in it, with none labeled as ‘this planet’, you can’t update directly on ‘there is life on this planet’, by excluding worlds where ‘this planet’ doesn’t have life. And you can’t necessarily treat ‘this’ as an arbitrary planet, since you wouldn’t have seen it if it didn’t have life.

I have an ongoing disagreement with an associate who suggests that you should take ‘this planet has life’ into account by conditioning on ‘there exists a planet with life’. That is,

P(Q|there is life on this planet) = P(Q|there exists a planet with life).

Here I shall explain my disagreement.

Nick Bostrom argues persuasively that much science would be impossible if we treated ‘I observe X’ as ‘someone observes X’. This is basically because in a big world of scientists making measurements, at some point somebody will make most mistaken measurements. So if all you know when you measure the temperature of a solution to be 15 degrees is that you are not in a world where nobody ever measures its temperature to be 15 degrees, this doesn’t tell you much about the temperature.

You can add other apparently irrelevant observations you make at the same time – e.g. that the table is blue chipboard – in order to make your total observations less likely to arise once in a given world (at its limit, this is the suggestion of FNC). However it seems implausible that you should make different inferences from taking a measurement when you can also see a detailed but irrelevant picture at the same time than those you make with limited sensory input. Also the same problem re-emerges if the universe is supposed to be larger. Given that the universe is thought to be very, very large, this is a problem. Not to mention, it seems implausible that the size of the universe should greatly affect probabilistic judgements made about entities which are close to independent from most of the universe.

So I think Bostrom’s case is good. However I’m not completely comfortable arguing from the acceptability of something that we do (science) back to the truth of the principles that justify it. So I’d like to make another case against taking ‘this planet has life’ as equivalent evidence to ‘there exists a planet with life’.

Evidence is what excludes possibilities. Seeing the sun shining is evidence against rain, because it excludes the possible worlds where the sky is grey, which include most of those where it is raining. Seeing a picture of the sun shining is not much evidence against rain, because it excludes worlds where you don’t see such a picture, which are about as likely to be rainy or sunny as those that remain are.

Receiving the evidence ‘there exists a planet with life’ means excluding all worlds where all planets are lifeless, and not excluding any other worlds. At first glance, this must be different from ‘this planet has life’. Take any possible world where some other planet has life, and this planet has no life. ‘There exists a planet with life’ doesn’t exclude that world, while ‘this planet has life’ does. Therefore they are different evidence.

At this point however, note that the planets in the model have no distinguishing characteristics. How do we even decide which planet is ‘this planet’ in another possible world? There needs to be some kind of mapping between planets in each world, saying which planet in world A corresponds to which planet in world B, etc. As far as I can tell, any mapping will do, as long as a given planet in one possible world maps to at most one planet in another possible world. This mapping is basically a definition choice.

So suppose we use a mapping where in every possible world where at least one planet has life, ‘this planet’ corresponds to one of the planets that has life. See the below image.

Which planet is which?

Squares are possible worlds, each with two planets. Pink planets have life, blue do not. Define ‘this planet’ as the circled one in each case. Learning that there is life on this planet is equal to learning that there is life on some planet.

Now learning that there exists a planet with life is the same as learning that this planet has life. Both exclude the far righthand possible world, and none of the other possible worlds. What’s more, since we can change the probability distribution we end up with, just by redefining which planets are ‘the same planet’ across worlds, indexical evidence such as ‘this planet has life’ must be horseshit.

Actually the last paragraph was false. If in every possible world which contains life, you pick one of the planets with life to be ‘this planet’, you can no longer know whether you are on ‘this planet’. From your observations alone, you could be on the other planet, which only has life when both planets do. The one that is not circled in each of the above worlds. Whichever planet you are on, you know that there exists a planet with life. But because there’s some probability of you being on the planet which only rarely has life, you have more information than that. Redefining which planet was which didn’t change that.

Perhaps a different definition of ‘this planet’ would get what my associate wants? The problem with the last was that it no longer necessarily included the planet we are on. So what about we define ‘this planet’ to be the one you are on, plus a life-containing planet in all of the other possible worlds that contain at least one life-containing planet. A strange, half-indexical definition, but why not? One thing remains to be specified – which is ‘this’ planet when you don’t exist? Let’s say it is chosen randomly.

Now is learning that ‘this planet’ has life any different from learning that some planet has life? Yes. Now again there are cases where some planet has life, but it’s not the one you are on. This is because the definition only picks out planets with life across other possible worlds, not this one. In this one, ‘this planet’ refers to the one you are on. If you don’t exist, this planet may not have life. Even if there are other planets that do. So again, ‘this planet has life’ gives more information than ‘there exists a planet with life’.

You either have to accept that someone else might exist when you do not, or you have to define ‘yourself’ as something that always exists, in which case you no longer know whether you are ‘yourself’. Either way, changing definitions doesn’t change the evidence. Observing that you are alive tells you more than learning that ‘someone is alive’.

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Physics vs. Economics

At my prodding, Sean Carrol considered the differing public treatment of physicists and economists:

In the public imagination, natural scientists have figured out a lot more reliable and non-obvious things about the world, compared to what non-experts would guess, than social scientists have. The insights of quantum mechanics and relativity are not things that most of us can even think sensibly about without quite a bit of background study. Social scientists, meanwhile, talk about things most people are relatively familiar with.

Hey, economists can talk obscure technical jargon just as easily as physicists. We don’t actually do that so much in public, because the public respects us less. Talking more technically wouldn’t make the public respect us more. Continue reading "Physics vs. Economics" »

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Teaching Science Process

Scientists and science educators often say they wished they could teach how science is really done. But Katja Grace says it isn’t hard to teach kids “the central idea of science: experimenting for the purpose of changing your mind”:

If you want to learn to do science, with all the thrills of actually discovering anything, you are probably best to pick an area where people don’t already know all of the cheap answers … Does decreasing the length of my skirt increase the propensity of the cool students to talk to me? Does learning the piano as a child really make people happier later in life? Does Father Christmas exist? Do the other children hate me or are they just indifferent? What factors best cause my brothers to leave me alone? How much do my grades change if I do half an hour more or less homework each night? Does eating sugar all evening really keep me awake? How often will I really be approached by potential kidnappers if I hang out at the mall by myself after school? …

Most children and teenagers disagree with their parents, teachers and other adults on a large number of issues. Investigating those issues scientifically might have the added benefit of getting students in the habit of keeping their opinions related to reality. (more)

Given the typical expression on the typical student’s face, it is amazing that schools present themselves as sanctuaries of personal fulfillment, and sacred founts of creativity and innovation. School advocates imply: “All the great artists, scientists, etc. did well at school, and without school they’d be so much less.” But in fact schools arose with industry to get folks to accept the regimentation and ranking of the industrial workplace, and to curb natural human creativity, exploration, and challenging of authority. As Katja’s proposal’s illustrates, schools could in fact teach folks how to question common beliefs “scientifically,” if in fact authorities wanted common folks doing that sort of thing.  As I’ve written:

School is mostly not about the material taught in classes. I’m less sure to what extent it is about learning-to-learn, coming-to-obey, bonding with other kids, and signaling these features as well as intelligence and conscientiousness. I’m pretty sure signaling of various sorts is at least 30% of the average private value of school, and it could go as high as 80%. … The best evidence I’ve seen that school adds great value is the stories I’ve heard about how difficult are employees who grew up in “primitive” cultures without familiar schools. Apparently, it is not so much that such folks don’t know enough to be useful, but that they refuse to accept being told what to do, and object to being publicly ranked relative to co-workers. (more; see also more)

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Science ROI Hype

Years ago as a researcher at NASA Ames, I considered returning to grad school. Thinking about where I might study prediction markets as applied to academia, economics of science looked promising, especially as Paul David headed an econ of sci group nearby at Stanford. But reading the literature I got a bad feeling – authors seemed to be dishonestly trying to help research agencies justify funding. So I instead when to Caltech to do experimental econ, whose results I trusted more. My distrust is confirmed in a recent three page Nature article:

Spending on science is one of the best ways to generate jobs and economic growth, say research advocates. But … the evidence behind such claims is patchy.

The number one current rationale for extra research investment is that it will generate badly needed economic growth. … Heeding such arguments, governments in Germany, Sweden, Canada and Australia, as well as the United States, have increased research spending as part of stimulus packages …  Beneath the rhetoric, however, there is considerable unease that the economic benefits of science spending are being oversold. … The problem, economists say, is that the numbers attached to widely quoted economic benefits of research have been extrapolated from a small number of studies, many of which were undertaken with the explicit aim of building support for research investment, rather than being objective assessments. … “Too much of what has been done, has been done as a process of advocacy.” …

In one of the bedrock papers in this field, Edwin Mansfield, the late University of Pennsylvania economist, estimated that academic research delivered an annual rate of return of 28% (E. Mansfield Research Policy 20, 1–12; 1991). The figure has been widely quoted ever since. But Mansfield reached this estimate by interviewing chief executives, asking them what proportion of their companies’ innovation was derived from university research and, in effect, demanding that they come up with a number. “He was asking an impossible question.” …

Measuring the ROI from research has proved tough, and has produced a wide range of values (see table). Some … [ask] what contribution did a dozen neuroscience grants received by the University of Cambridge in 1972 eventually make to drug development? Such efforts are complicated, however, by the difficulties of attributing credit for any given drug to the numerous research teams involved over time. … “It is fair to say that this is an analytical dead end.” …

This [PR] influence derives in part from the activities of US medical research lobbyists. An example is the 2000 report Exceptional Returns: The Economic Value of America’s Investment in Medical Research by … Mary Woodard Lasker Charitable Trust that advocated biomedical research spending. … The document estimated that the steep decline in cardiovascular deaths in the United States between 1970 and 1990 has an economic value of $1.5 trillion annually, and deduced that one-third of this — $500 billion a year — could be attributed to medical research that led to new procedures and drugs. … Robert Topel, … whose work was cited in the report, distances himself from some of its claims. “Probably only a little of the fall in the cardiovascular death rate has to do with surgery and beta-blockers,” he says. …

Research agencies have no interest in assessing the costs of research fairly, says Barry Bozeman, a science-policy specialist. … “Honest clients are in short supply” for research in this field, he says. “Most of them think they already have the answers, and want someone to find the numbers to prove them right.”

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Silencing Outsider Status

Me last week:

Paul Davies, chair of the group that decides what SETI scientists will do if evidence of aliens is ever found, thinks … until scientists can say something to the public with great (~99%) confidence, they should say nothing. … Most early low-probability signs … being false alarms is “damaging to the credibility of science.”  So until scientists can confidently say that an asteroid will hit us or that we see aliens, they should just whisper to each other. … One might justify this confidence-or-silence policy by arguing … reporters are biased to present low probability news as if it were high probability.

Today’s Post:

NASA … reopened a 14-year-old controversy, … reaffirming and offering support for its widely challenged assertion that a 4-billion-year-old meteorite that landed thousands of years ago on Antarctica shows evidence of microscopic life on Mars. … Fourteen years of relentless criticism have turned many scientists against the McKay results, and the Mars meteorite “discovery” has remained an unresolved and somewhat awkward issue.  This has continued even though the team’s central finding — that Mars once had living creatures — has gained broad acceptance. …

Critics had said that the magnetites could have just as easily existed without bacteria or biology — that they sometimes form as a result of the shock and searing heat that could come, for instance, from an asteroid strike. But … [a] recent paper … reported that the purity of the magnetites made that explanation impossible. … “All the criticisms of our original paper got widely distributed, but when we did the work to prove the critics were wrong, it hardly made a ripple. … We’re now in a position to say we’ve knocked down all the criticisms — and our biological explanation is the one left standing.” …

At the conference, a leading cautionary voice in astrobiology proposed that a special protocol be established to oversee release of any journal articles making dramatic extraterrestrial claims. Andrew Steele … compared the absence of astrobiology review with the formal procedures set up by scientists involved with the search for extraterrestrial life, or SETI.  He said that SETI leaders understood the societal sensitivity of their work and that it was time for researchers in astrobiology “grow up and do the same.” (more)

Yet another voice for muzzling!  It seems clear to me that scientists do not usually insist on such high standards of confidence for publication.  Most Research Findings Are False seems pretty clear evidence, as does the high rate of celebrated new medical treatments that are later repudiated, and the very low marginal health-effectiveness of medicine.  I suspect I see similarly low standards for publications that are pro-global warming, or that warn of low science funding or manpower.  If the standard of evidence for publication varies with the topic, we can’t explain it via a generic tendency for reporters to exaggerate findings.  So what explains this variation?

Here I’ll channel Tyler Cowen, and suggest this is mostly about how real events echoing stories we tell change which intellectuals get more status.  Think of all the movies you’ve ever seen of an outsider intellectual unfairly rejected by establishment scientists.  Evidence of aliens, or a Really Big Disaster are prototypical.  Well establishment scientists see those movies too, and they don’t want real stories like them to appear in the media. They correctly perceive, for example, that a story confirming aliens would raise the status of UFO nuts, relative to establishment academics.  Similarly, news about a really big disaster would raise the status of “the sky is falling” outsiders.

On the other hand, establishment academics correctly perceive their status would be raised, relative to outsiders, by more stories of promising new medical treatments, of the seriousness of global warming, of the need for more science funding, or that a new result “might lead to a new theory of everything.” Even if such stories turn out later to be wrong.  Why?  Because we hear many similar stories about heroic scientists discovering treatments, or warning of enviro disaster, and few stories about such scientists being later wrong.

I see two effects:

  1. There are some long standing disagreements between insider and outsider intellectuals in our society, and any news that confirms outsider claims raises outsider status.
  2. News about a real event about you that matches a commonly-told story in which you’d be a hero, raises your status.   If that news is later reversed, that won’t reverse your status, if there aren’t commonly told stories about you being a villain in a news reversal story.
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Confidence or Silence

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.

Paul Davies is chair of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup.

Paul Davies, chair of the group that decides what SETI scientists will do if evidence of aliens is ever found, thinks similarly about science news: until scientists can say something to the public with great (~99%) confidence, they should say nothing.  (Quotes below.)  You see, frequent public updates on science issues of great popular interest, like evidence of aliens or asteroids headed toward Earth, would result in reporters bothering scientists at work with “mayhem”, disrupting their “lines of communication,” and disturbing their “dispassionate analysis.”  The fact that most early low-probability signs would end up being false alarms is “damaging to the credibility of science.”  So until scientists can confidently say that an asteroid will hit us or that we see aliens, they should just whisper to each other.

In the extreme case of receiving an actual alien message directed at us, Davies prefers scientists to kept quiet for the many years it would likely take to decode it fully.  And he prefers aliens to not send us any useful tech info, as then we would fight over who could decode it first.  How disruptive!

One might justify this confidence-or-silence policy by arguing either that 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.

Within academia, the bias against non-top articles seems like signaling.  Since folks confident they are great would not admit they’d ever done work that could not meet the highest standards, medium journal publications reveal a lack of confidence.  Similarly, I suspect signaling is behind the confidence-or-silence policy.  Since it is harder to credibly say something with great confidence than with low confidence, saying something with low confidence sends a bad signal about your abilities.  Keeping info secret is also a status move; info gives control and control marks status.

Quotes from Eerie Silence: Continue reading "Confidence or Silence" »

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Uncritical Science News

In Nature, Colin Macilwain says science reporting is too uncritical:

[Science journalism] converts original scientific findings, via a production line of embargoed press releases from journals and universities, into a steady stream of largely uncritical stories. … In stark contrast to proper investigations of issues such as public corruption, corporate maleficence or industrial health and safety — essentially silly stories about science continue to fill newspapers and news broadcasts.  Some science reporters are uneasy about this situation, but most accept it. … Most [scientists] seem to be largely content with a system that disguises the very human process of scientific discovery as a seamless stream of ingenious and barely disputed ‘breakthroughs’. Like other elites, researchers feel no great yearning to be held to account by the press. ….

There is a need for dedicated newspaper sections, radio and TV programmes, more akin to existing sports coverage, that can provide detailed, critical assessment of the scientific enterprise for people who really like science.  Reporters and editors could then engage with sets of findings and associated issues of real societal importance in the news pages, asking the hard questions about money, influence and human frailty that much of today’s science journalism sadly ignores. …

The machine … serves the short-term interests of its participants. … Researchers, universities and funding agencies get clips that show that their work has had ‘impact’. And readers get snippets, such as how red or white wine makes you live longer or less long, to chat about at the water-cooler. … Science is being misrepresented as a cacophony of sometimes divergent but nonetheless definitive ‘findings’, each warmly accepted by colleagues, on the record, as deeply significant. The public learns nothing about the actual cut and thrust of the scientific process.

Yes, science reporting is less critical than political, business, or sports reporting.  Since the media is very competitive, readers/viewers must prefer it that way.  But why?

First, we are far more suspicious of bids for dominance-status than for prestige-status.  We see politicians and businesses as threatening to dominate us and so we are eager to watch out for illicit power grabs.  In contrast, we see science, arts, literature, etc. as only awarding prestige, not power, and we are less worried about illicit prestige grabs.  We mainly care about prestigious stuff as ways to see who is more impressive, and a tricky “illicit” prestige grab is itself pretty impressive, so little harm done.

Also, we like some critical reporting on sports, music, and literature because we are expected to choose sides in these areas as part of our identity.  We are supposed to have our favorite band, team, or author, and so we appreciate news rehearsing arguments we might offer for or against such things

But we are not supposed to have favorite positions on science disputes.  Science is more like our communal religion, something that distinguishes us advanced insiders from those ignorant outsiders, and we are eager to signal being part of us and not them.  It is like how, aside from worrying about power-grabs by our military leaders, we are not each supposed to have a different favorite war strategy for our troops – that would be divisive and we prefer to show that we are united against them.

Sciences of politics or business are of course the obvious exception, as we suspect illicit power in politics or business might be supported by illicit scientists.  So we do see critical reporting in these sort of sciences.

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