December 02, 2006

Bible Science stories

Seeded by a breezy Daily Mail article that didn't even get the author's name and book title right, two pieces of quantitative psych-lore have been spreading through the world's media over the past few days: women talk three times as much as men, and men think of sex every 52 seconds, compared to once a day for women. These "facts", we've been told by Matt Drudge and and dozens of newspapers and CNN, the BBC and NPR, have been "discovered" or "confirmed" by Dr. Louann Brizendine's scientific studies.

The public reaction has mostly been that this is like doing experiments to discover that the sun rises in the east, or to confirm that animals deprived of food will starve. In fact, however, the "facts" about word counts and sexual thoughts are false: Louann Brizendine hasn't done any research on either topic, the sources she cites contain no relevant evidence, and existing studies contradict her claims. You can read about talking here and sexual thoughts here, and more on the pseudo-science of sex differences here.

But to insist on the concept of "fact" in this context is a recipe for frustration. As I've watched the reaction to Louann Brizendine's book over the past few months, I've concluded that "scientific studies" like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.

What would the producers of CNN Headline News, NPR's "Wait, wait, don't tell me" or the BBC's "Have I got news for you" say, if presented with evidence that they've been peddling falsehoods? I imagine that their reaction would be roughly like that of an Episcopalian Sunday-school teacher, confronted with evidence from DNA phylogeny that the animals of the world could not possibly have gone through the genetic bottleneck required by the story of Noah's ark. I mean, lighten up, man, it's just a story.

[Update 12/3/2006 -- Phil Resnik writes:

Peter Sagal of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" is an old college friend. I asked him what he thought of your blog entry, since you mentioned the show, and he replied with the following (with permission to include on the blog):

Your friend Mark is correct, although our reaction would be something slightly more like: "Ah, come on, it's too good to check." We do a fair amount of 'dumb scientific studies' stories -- in fact, every now and then we devote an entire segment to something like the IgNobels. We are, of course, a satire and comedy show, so we expect our audience to understand that we don't vouch for the study's accuracy, nor should our mention of it be taken by anyone to mean that it's scientifically solid -- no more than anyone listening to us should think that President Bush really is a poopyhead, as confirmed by peer reviewed double blind studies.

True that. Wait, Wait is a different beast than CNN Headline News, I think!

The trouble is, it's pretty clear that CNN Headline News also treats most stories in the human sciences as either "too boring to run" or "too good to check". And most other media outlets are basically the same: the word count and sex-thought frequency factoids have appeared in more than 100 wire service, newspaper, magazine and broadcast stories, at all levels of the journalistic food chain.

Wait, wait, here's an idea: amuse the audience by making fun of nonsense in the news! Nah, that would require insight as well as irony...]

[Update #2 -- fev from Headsup: the Blog emails:

Mark: You're nailing some excellent stuff of late, in particular your comment in pop-science stories:

"For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive."

It's probly worth bearing in mind, tho, that the comment's equally true of much of what happens in coverage of politics, economics and the like; see how long it takes you to find an assertion in the press that Nixon was impeached because of the efforts of Woodward and Bernstein. Or, on the other side of the fence, that the Iron Curtain collapsed on Ronald Reagan's watch. Both sorts of morality play are, in fact and implication, false, but -- as you correctly note -- they're lessons in how the world ought to work more than accounts of how it does.

For better or worse, that's a function of journalism; it transmits cultural norms and empirical data in roughly equal proportions. The risk is that the audience can't (or doesn't have any reason to) tell the difference. We're trying to work on some of that. Meanwhile, keep on pummeling the Brizendine stuff.

Let's say, "lessons in how someone thinks the world ought to work".

Anyhow, fev has now revealed himself as an anthropologist working undercover as an editor -- I can't wait to read the monograph he'll produce when he drops the disguise. If you haven't picked out a title yet, fev, how about "Tristes Topiques"? (OK, "topique" is a false friend, but still...)]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 2, 2006 04:17 PM