Re: [mythsoc] Digest Number 554
- The general bogosity of that article on attaching the head of one monkey to
another's body inspires me to say something about placing too much confidence
in articles (even in fairly well-respected mainstream news sources) on new
scientific discoveries. A lot of these articles are fairly bogus. You
should always take them with a grain of salt.
By calling them bogus, I don't mean that they're lies. No respectable
newspaper, magazine, or TV network would deliberately misquote someone.
Furthermore, they do a pretty good job of not quoting a random nutcase as if
he were a famous scientist. They often make an attempt to quote a few other
scientists about the discovery.
Often though, the authors of the news article miss the significance of the
discovery. I've seen this in articles about subjects that I know a fair bit
about, and I've suspected it in other areas as well. There are several
reasons for this. One is that the writers aren't top experts in the field,
just journalists with (at best) the knowledge of the field that someone with
a bachelor's degree in the subject might have. They can't call everyone in
the field to figure out whether the scientist's claims are as new or as
important or as well-established as he claims in his article (or often, as is
claimed in the press release written by someone in the university public
relations office that announces a discovery that hasn't even been published
in a scientific journal yet). Another reason is that scientists have good
reason to make their discoveries sound as important as possible, even if this
distorts the context of the discovery. They have to get journalists to think
their discovery is worth writing about. Third, journalists want to make
their articles sound interesting, and they do that by making the discoveries
sound like a major breakthrough. You don't sell papers by printing articles
about trivial discoveries.
This is probably worst in news stories about medical matters, where often no
attempt is made to distinguish whether an announced result is a genuinely new
and surprising one, or another experiment confirming a previous result, or
another experiment on a subject in which there have been a number of
conflicting results. Part of the problem is that readers like to hear about
breakthroughs. Science does not, for the most part, consist of
breakthroughs. Mostly it consists of the slow, patient accumulation of facts.
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