Anecdotes, more evolution, exaggerations, and expertise

Another very busy week this week. Things should get less hectic next week, when I will hopefully have time to write something more substantial. Until then, here are some semi-coherent thoughts and links:

  1. Facebook became the discussion ground for this positive review of the No Child Left Behind legislation. The generally positive statistical evaluations were countered with stories of teachers’ concerns. A theoretical physicist and good friend responded that statistics should trump anecdote, and thus we must conclude that NCLB is a success! Just a couple years ago I probably would have given him my unequivocal support. Now I’m not so sure. Statistics are definitely important. But for complex questions, qualitative methods, case studies and even anecdotes can be useful. I now see them as a complement to, rather than in competition with, data and statistics. Thoughts?
  2. Rod Dreher interviews a co-author of the recent study on evolution in U.S. high schools. The introduction of the interview describes evolution as “the unshakable bedrock of high school biology courses.” As I said a long time ago, that assertion is dubious. Much of biology can be taught without reference to evolution. Whether it should is a different question of course. I really want to comment more, and promise to get it soon!
  3. A few British neuroscientists protest exaggerations by their colleagues. I didn’t think scientists ever did that! The post made me think that this situation is partially driven by forcing scientists to identify the outcome or impact of their work. Basic research often doesn’t have direct positive outcomes, and asking scientists to demonstrate otherwise is a recipe for distortions and misleading publicity campaigns (h/t Roger Pielke Jr.)
  4. Over at The League, they’re discussing why liberals trust expert consensus on global warming but not free trade. I’m sure this has been mentioned in the comment thread, but it’s the politics silly!


  1. Praj – I think you’re being far too apologetic for scientists who make overblown public assessments of the implications of current research by suggesting that they’re victims of being forced to identify the outcome or impact of their work. It’s perfectly reasonable for those who pay for research to expect realistic assessment of the range and limits of possible outcomes of the work actually funded and to have this clearly separated from the contingent possibilities that may provide the basic motivation for undertaking it in the first place. It’s also perfectly reasonable of them to expect researchers, once funded, to actually deliver an outcome that falls within the range of possibilities originally indicated. Even the most “basic” research can be rationalized in terms of its ability to provide conclusive answers to well-defined questions. If a scientist cannot say in advance just what questions s/he is attempting to answer and provide a reasoned explanation as to why the planned work can be expected to provide such answers, or still cannot answer the questions even after undertaking the plan of work that s/he designed, then that individual is not a strong candidate for further funding.
    It’s perfectly reasonable and, I would say, desirable (because of the motivational aspects) for “basic” researchers to talk about the potential long-term potential of their research, but any who fail to distinguish between that and what may realistically be achieved within the confines of the research they’re actually funded to do right now are living dangerously.
    If scientists who embarrass themselves by making exaggerated claims in public are victims of anything, it’s of their own naivety about journalists and the news industry. No matter how interested any journalist may be in science, his or her livelihood depends on writing stories that sell. And stories of people making asses of themselves are some of the easiest to sell.

    1. Good points Peter. I agree that it’s reasonable for those who pay for research to expect realistic assessments. I wonder if there’s a tension b/w what researchers will put in their grants (and be a bit more careful) vs. what they’ll tell the media to generate public hype and excitement in the hope it will lead to more research funds.

      1. I would think that fostering a generally sympathetic attitude to one’s own research interests (what I would call market positioning) would be a natural and perfectly appropriate type of preparation to make in advance of one’s grant applications in order to maximise the chance of them being successful. This goes on all the time and I’m not sure there is necessarily any tension in it – it’s a vital part of what makes science work. Maybe some scientists like to pretend that they are somehow ‘above’ the market, but that’s their delusion. Winning research grants and getting papers published in academic journals are as much a market as any other business. And as such, they’re just as much subject to the considerations of business ethics as any other business: putting out hype that encourages unrealistic expectations is stupid and will eventually come back to bite the originator.

        1. Good points. I really like your comparison to business ethics. But I wonder if it actually will “come back to bike the originator.” From what I’ve seen, scientists have been hyping their research forever. And for the most part, they (we!) have benefited. Not sure why they would stop now.

  2. You may not need evolution to teach biology, but you pretty much do need it to teach biology well. I don’t know if you saw the new AAAS report on revamping the undergrad biology curriculum. The focus is undergrad and not high school. But they identified core concepts and the very first one was evolution. I guess it all depends on the class and what you’re hoping to accomplish.

  3. Praj :
    … I wonder if it actually will “come back to bite the originator.” From what I’ve seen, scientists have been hyping their research forever. And for the most part, they (we!) have benefited. Not sure why they would stop now.

    We probably selectively remember the hype that turned out to be right and forget what didn’t. The consequences of putting out careless hype (or generating other ‘bad’ publicity) can depend on your existing prominence (see this). If scientists can really only gain from hyping their research, maybe it’s because no-one’s taking them that seriously to begin with.

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