Don't change your worldview based on one study

Via one of my favorite sites, The Invisible Gorilla

My concern is about media reporting and even blogging about new and provocative scientific findings, the very findings that tend to decline. Following a murder, the arrest of a suspect is broadcast on the front pages, but when that suspect is exonerated, the correction ends up on the back of the local section months later (if it appears at all). The same problem holds for flawed scientific claims. The thoroughly debunked Mozart Effect still receives media coverage, just as other unsupported findings remain part of the popular consciousness despite a lack of replicability.

Part of the problem is the rush to publicize unusual or unexpected positive findings, particularly when they run counter to decades of established science. That excitement about a new result is palpable and understandable. Who wants to write about the boring old stuff? The media loves controversy, and new results that counter the establishment are inherently interesting. Scientists strive for such controversy as well—what scientist doesn’t relish the idea of overhauling an accepted theory?

Scientists understand that initially provocative claims don’t always hold up to scrutiny, but media coverage rarely withholds judgment. If well-established ideas can be shot down by a single study, and that single study gets extensive media coverage, the public understandably won’t know what to trust. The result, from the perspective of a consumer of science, is that science itself appears unstable. It gives people license to doubt non-controversial claims and theories (e.g., evolution). To the public eye, a single contradictory study has the same standing as established theory.

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About Miguel Barbosa

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24. December 2010 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Wisdom Seeking | Leave a comment

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