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  • “Scientists Say”

    Posted by David Foster on September 28th, 2016 (All posts by )

    Almost every day, I see a headline that starts with the words “scientists say”…everything from “Scientists say pizza is better than money for motivating employees” to “scientists say men who are good listeners are better at sex.”  Sometimes the headlines go even further and assert that “science says.”

    If you try to track down the actual headlines behinds these assertions, you will often find a study done on 40 or so undergraduates, sometimes using questionable methodologies, on which the journalists base their imprimatur of ‘science says.’  And very often, you can’t ever read the study unless you’re willing to pay $30 or more for the privilege, because it’s in an access-controlled journal.  This doesn’t stop the university PR departments from issuing breathless press releases about the study conclusions, though.

    It’s sort of sad–scientific publishing was once a way of disseminating information; now it functions largely as a means for limiting access to information.  I have a hard time understanding why publicly-funded research shouldn’t be required to be publicly available on the Internet at no or minimal cost.

    I think the ‘scientists say’ and ‘science says’ memes would not work in a society where most of the population had some degree of scientific education.  Science is not shamanism, and scientists are not oracles.

     

    25 Responses to ““Scientists Say””

    1. Mike K Says:

      First, any discipline that has the word “Studies” in it, is not science.

      Second, “Scientism” is another form of appeals to authority. I doubt most of those people writing the article could explain it.

      We live in the era where Sokol’s Hoax is the standard for many articles. Steve Hayward has a series of posts on ridiculous publications, usually in Social “Science” that illustrate absurdity.

    2. PenGun Says:

      I suspect you are not running powerful enough ad blockers. Mine are pretty good but they now embed, right in the site’s code, all manner of crap. This must be fairly expensive but the bits do appear to be almost the same as the actual content. This type of hook almost always extols amazing facts, and the ‘scientists say’ crap, gets used a lot.

      One needs to watch South Park’s last season, S19 is one long expose of the modern ad.

    3. David Foster Says:

      Not talking about ads, Pen…this is editorial coverage. Although much of it is on the level with snake-oil advertising…

    4. David Foster Says:

      I do think there is some worthwhile research in the social sciences…the problem is that there’s also a lot of stuff that’s not ready for prime time, and may never be ready for prime time, that gets hyped.

      The meta-problem, which extends far beyond social sciences, is that too many people think science is a matter of ‘consensus’, and fail to understand the concepts of hypothesis, controlled experiment, open publication, need for replication, etc

    5. Gringo Says:

      While the media may report what “scientists say,” I tend to ignore it. The odds are that the media is reporting what “social scientists say.” Social science is to science as Wonder Bread is to french bread. I never had much trust in “social science.” The recently reported replication problem- especially big in Social Psychology- merely confirms my previous opinions.

      My mistrust of social science also came from being exposed to TV commercials during my childhood. One I recall was “Nine out of ten Doctors prefer Anacin.” I couldn’t find it on YouTube, but I did find the following gem:More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette. After viewing a certain number of such ads, even a kid can conclude that X% of Y are Z is just flim-flam.

      I also knew that “social scientists” were involved in marketing research for such ads, as a “social scientist” once interviewed me and my family for that. That “social scientists” would involve themselves in flim-flammery like market research also made me skeptical of “social scientists.” In addition, as this “social scientist” was rather radical in political leanings,it was somewhat schizophrenic to also be doing market research.

    6. David Foster Says:

      Sometimes the ‘scientists say’ term is used for things outside the social sciences, as in:

      scientists say chaos theory could keep Moore’s Law alive

      The article is kind of confusing. There is nothing magic about being “non-linear”, ALL digital circuits are non-linear: a small change in input will lead to a big change in output when the circuit flips from ‘1’ state to ‘0’ state or vice-versa.

      Will have to track down the actual research and take a look.

    7. William Newman Says:

      “There is nothing magic about being ‘non-linear’, ALL digital circuits are non-linear: a small change in input will lead to a big change in output when the circuit flips from ‘1’ state to ‘0’ state or vice-versa. ”

      Sorry to be fussily pedantic, but I expect more than 10% of the readers will not know independently what non-linearity means here, so I want to give a more careful statement of the definition instead of sending them away thinking they know something they don’t. Your “small change in input will lead to a big change in output” definition is too broad (and is more nearly a definition of a notion like “high gain” rather than “non-linear”): it includes circuits like amplifiers which are designed to be linear. (At least, amplifiers are designed to be linear over their ordinary input range. Amplifiers can’t in practice respond linearly to all possible inputs. The skeptical reader can test this experimentally for one possible input by hooking the input of an amplifier to a lightning rod and waiting, and will probably discover that an ordinary consumer grade audio amplifier does not cleanly amplify a lightning strike into a proportionally loud high-fidelity sound coming from its speakers, but instead does something different, like exploding into smoke.)

      The idea of “non-linear” is much more nearly that a small change in input in one part of the input range (from 0.4 volts to 0.41 volts, e.g.) will lead to a different change in output than a similarly small change in input in some other part of the range (from 2.1 to 2.11 volts, e.g.). That is, the slope of the output as a function of the input is not constant (or equivalently. the change in output is not everywhere proportional to the change in input) which is unlike an output which looks like a straight line. A common shape of outputs from digital circuits is a “step function” for which the output hardly varies in the low part of the range, then suddenly jumps up (or “steps up”) to a different output value somewhere in the center of the range, then hardly varies for the rest of the high part of the range.

      In ordinary life outside electronics, nonlinear response is also common, and roughly-step-like functions aren’t particularly rare. E.g., the increase in property damage caused by an 30 inch rise in water level may be negligible (if the water level started more than 30 inches below the top of the dike) or enormous (if the water level started 9 inches below the top of the dike).

      And, FWIW, many of the mentions of “nonlinear” in technical or semitechnical writing aren’t just pointy-headed fascination with what graphs look like, but reflections of practical concerns about what mathematical techniques are suitable to help understand the system. Many very useful formal analysis techniques (Fourier analysis e.g.) work much better with linear systems than with nonlinear systems, and informal back-of-the-envelope analysis can also be much easier and more reliable for linear systems. This can be a sufficiently big deal in practice that in many cases “linear” is semisynonymous with “tractable” and “nonlinear” can have a strong connotation of “[may you live in] interesting [times]”. So like “gold standard”, “linear” has a literal meaning but often people are using the term because they care about things that are technical consequences of the literal meaning (things like numerical tractability, or resistance to arbitrary inflation) rather than actually caring that their money is based on one particularly dense metal. And both for “linear” and “gold standard” it is true that there is nothing magical about linearity and there is nothing magical about gold, but the technical consequences that people are referring to can be profound enough to have great practical significance.

    8. Jonathan Says:

      William Newman, thanks. That is a great comment.

      Perhaps discontinuous or disproportionate would be a better metaphor than nonlinear in this case.

    9. Brian Says:

      “The idea of “non-linear” is much more nearly that a small change in input in one part of the input range (from 0.4 volts to 0.41 volts, e.g.) will lead to a different change in output than a similarly small change in input in some other part of the range (from 2.1 to 2.11 volts, e.g.)”
      I don’t think these numbers show quite what you want to say, since 0.4->0.41 is a 2.5% change while 2.1->2.11 is a 0.5% change.

      “That is, the slope of the output as a function of the input is not constant (or equivalently. the change in output is not everywhere proportional to the change in input)”
      This is better.

      I concede upfront that I’m not an expert at all in electronics, so it’s possible that delta-voltage is somehow the relevant input, in which case, never mind.

      Re: the main article, it’s incredible how completely ignorant most scientists are of basic statistics. That’s really the main problem (well, that and the Scientism of the modern age plus a totally ignorant, credulous, and partisan media). Scientific journals should use experts in statistics to referee journal papers, if there is any math at all involved.

    10. mhj Says:

      This is a subset of the larger journalistic malpractice of using unattributed “sources” whenever a reporter or editor wants to say something but has no basis for it.

      “Insiders are concerned about…”

      “Many observers have said that…”

      and so on.

      If it sounds off, it is almost certainly a lie and should be treated as such.

    11. David Foster Says:

      WN…yes, digital circuits in, addition to being nonlinear, exhibit a specific form of nonlinearity which includes a step function, or an approximation to one. The point remains that it is pretty meaningless to refer to a new type of digital circuit as ‘nonlinear’ when all existing digital circuits are already nonlinear.

      The broader point is that ‘nonlinear’ is often used as a rather mystical term. Mike K mentioned the Sokal Hoax…for those not familiar with this, it was a purposely ridiculous paper called Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, which was submitted to and published by a journal called Social Text, which evidently took it for a serious scholarly work. ‘Linear’ and ‘nonlinear’ are all over this piece, along with such lines as “The teaching of science and mathematics must be purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics, and the content of these subjects enriched by incorporating the insights of the feminist, queer, multiculturalist and ecological critiques.”

      The article quotes someone who says: “Quantum physics, hadron bootstrap theory, complex number theory, and chaos theory share the basic assumption that reality cannot be described in linear terms, that nonlinear — and unsolvable — equations are the only means possible to describe a complex, chaotic, and non-deterministic reality.”

      There are plenty of plain, ordinary, deterministic phenomena which ‘cannot be described in linear terms’, for example, the equation of a vehicle’s air resistance as a function of its speed.

    12. Sgt. Mom Says:

      “This is a subset of the larger journalistic malpractice of using unattributed “sources” whenever a reporter or editor wants to say something but has no basis for it.”

      Yep.

    13. Boobah Says:

      Gringo said: “The recently reported replication problem- especially big in Social Psychology- merely confirms my previous opinions.”

      The reason Social Psychology stands out isn’t that they’re worse than the other social sciences; it’s that they’re the only one where different social scientists methodically went back and checked a hundred recently published papers for replicability.

      Nobody really knows how bad it is in the rest of social science, or in the non-social sciences for that matter, because it’s real hard to get grant money to check other people’s hypotheses.

      It’s also worth pointing out that most of the social scientists whose work was not replicated (not least including a study authored by the guy running the replicability study!) are very, very sure that the folks who failed to replicate ‘did it wrong.’ Which naturally means that, if true, they did a horrible job describing the experiment and consequently what their results mean anyway, so…

    14. Mike K Says:

      “or in the non-social sciences for that matter, because it’s real hard to get grant money to check other people’s hypotheses.”

      A large share of medical journal articles are not reproducible. There is even a journal of Irredproducible Results.

      For example this graph.

    15. Joe Wooten Says:

      That’s one reason I detest the “climate scientists” so much. Their abuse of statistical methods and then doctoring the raw data when reality does not meet their crappy computer projections is well known, and in any less politicized field, would make them subject to prosecution for fraud. I know for damn sure if I had used their methods in my field of expertise, nuclear power plants, the NRC would have the DOJ all over me. There are guys who have been convicted for this and living under a ban from ever working in this industry ever again.

      Global warming was a scam and fraud from the start, but it’s practitioners made sure to ally themselves with the leftists and politicize it first so that any prosecution of them can be met with screams of political persecution. Every time someone points out that their results cannot be replicated, they scream invective to distract attention away from their fraud.

    16. David Foster Says:

      One of the main reasons for the huge infusion of federal money in to the American K-12 system was the post-Sputnik fear that we were falling behind the Russians in math and science.

      Maybe it improved science teaching in the short term, but in the longer perspective, it was a huge bait-and-switch. What % of kids get a meaningful science education in K-12?

    17. Douglas2 Says:

      I’m in a privileged position in that the institution where I work allows me access to just about all popular scholarly journals.

      I’ve worked out that if I see “scientists say” or “a new study shows that” online, and there are no hyperlinks — or there are hyperlinks but it takes me more than 5 clicks to access the original paper, than the report I am reading is intentionally lying to me about what was actually reported in the paper.

      When the reported results fit one side’s preconceptions on an area of current political controversy, it is quite typical for one article to reference the press release, another article to reference the first article instead of the press release, a third article to reference the second, and so on. If the press release itself doesn’t give enough information about authors, title, and journal for me to find the original paper via google search, that is another sure sign that the press release is fraudulently overstating the results and significance of the work.

      I’ve come to the conclusion that activist organizations really don’t expect anyone to click through their hyperlinks — Every time I do, I find that what is said at the links is in some way contradictory to the reporting from the pressure-group.

    18. PenGun Says:

      Yup those Ruskis are good at science, hard science especially.

      It amuses me to be in a position where both linearity and science come together.

      Joe might be interested that I have taken up flying. I am putting together my next gaming setup, and I will get my first joystick in over 20 years, in a few days. One of the discussions that are ongoing is whether a linear or non linear set of curves, for the joystick, are best for good action. I’ll be playing IL 2 Sturmovic Battle of Stalingrad, so I’ll see how bad the Russian air force was. Apparently it was very good, but the best fighters were in short supply.

      Oh yeah, real scientists:
      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtESv1e7ntJaLJYKIO1FoYw
      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCAgrIbwcJ67zIow1pNF30A
      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvBqzzvUBLCs8Y7Axb-jZew
      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoxcjq-8xIDTYp3uz647V5A
      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCo-3ThNQmPmQSQL_L6Lx1_w

    19. Bill Brandt Says:

      What is even worse is that the PR pronouncements are generally politically motivated. Years ago Forbes Magazine coined a wonderful description of this science calling it “junk science”.

    20. Joe Wooten Says:

      Pennie,

      You’ll have about as much luck projecting a single front war between Germany and the USSR as the climate models have had in predicting global warming. A realistic game for that would increase Luftwaffe forces by at least 60% and the Heer by 30%. You’ll might survive until you run into Eric Hartmann, though Stalin’s Falcons always ran away as fast as they could when his black tulip decorated ME109 showed up. Every WW2 computer simulation game I’ve ever played scaled back the American contribution to make it more interesting and give the cleverly played Axis forces a chance of winning. In the real world, it was over the moment the USA went fully into the war.

    21. PenGun Says:

      Joe. The IL 2 Sturmovic games are regarded as among the most accurate sims there are. The Battle of Stalingrad is where the war turned, and the Russians committed more deeply than they had before.

      There are certainly very few of the good Russian fighters in that part of the war, but the ones that were, do pretty well. The Bf 109s were certainly much better fighters than the common Russian fighters, but they were fragile. The Russian planes generally were not. The Russian ground attack was probably better than the Germans, and much carnage was caused by this part of Russian force.

      There are ongoing battles on several servers. Ongoing in that, the conditions set by combat that day, create the next set of mission possibilities, for the next. Fail to destroy that tank division and it overruns your cities and airfields.

      Looks to be immense fun. Oh yeah, I believe the Russians won. ;)

    22. dearieme Says:

      “In the real world, it was over the moment the USA went fully into the war.” That may well be true. And maybe it didn’t even need the US Army: its Navy and factories would probably have been enough to determine the outcome.

    23. PenGun Says:

      Oh Joe you live in a dream. It was Rommel that first taught the Americans that war was not like in the movies, in WW2.

      The Russians killed almost 80% of all German soldiers killed and that’s why you could conduct your little landing in Normandy. They had most of the German army tied up for many years, although there was much bitching that they could do more. That’s why you gave em’ trucks and even some planes, so they could hold the German army. The reason there were so few planes to oppose the Allies on D day was because the Russians had broken the German air force. You would not have even have gotten ashore without the Russians keeping most of the German tied up in Russia.

    24. Joe Wooten Says:

      Ignorant, just ignorant.

    25. PenGun Says:

      If one were to pick the point where the German air forces started to be seriously degraded, it might easily be the Battle of Kuban as the German armies retreated into the Ukraine.

      Although the actual tally was about 2/1 for the Germans in planes downed, they could not afford attrition at that level, the Russians could, and rolled on.