December 23, 2007

Myth is truth (p < .05)

In this week's Tom the Dancing Bug, Ruben Bolling explains "how great journalism is done" (the full strip is here.). He's talking about political journalism, obviously. Science journalism is generally simpler, since the scientific equivalents of political parties are usually too diffuse and too weak to call a publication effectively to account for unfairness. In fact, most of the time there aren't any powerful voices at all to call you to account if you write something wrong or foolish about a scientific topic, just a lot of scientifically-educated readers cursing into their oatmeal.

So you're pretty much free to write what you want, based on a popular book, a lecture you've heard, a press release or another story in the popular press. Your editor will like it if you figure out how to add a local or topical angle. If you're at a high-end publication, you might slot in a comment from an expert source -- though in general, you don't want that source to confuse everyone by casting doubt on the main story line, or at least on your interpretation of it.

In science journalism, there are several other prominent story lines beside "Up is Down". One of them is "Up is Up, Science Shows", where some common-sense truth is demonstrated by means of expensive equipment or clever mathematical analysis. This doesn't always work, but it's pretty spectacular when it does. My current favorite example is one that was featured in Matt Hutson's NYT Year in Ideas piece on "neurorealism":

... a Boston Globe article about how high-fat foods activate reward centers in the brain. The Globe headline: "Fat Really Does Bring Pleasure." Couldn't we have proved that with a slice of pie and a piece of paper with a check box on it?

Matt's (entirely appropriate) reaction is an instance of another common story line, is "That's what I always thought", or more succinctly, "well, duh." Ironically, this one is most often deployed in reaction to claims that are not really true, at least as the "well, duh" articles present them. This happens especially often with respect to stories about sex differences, where the structure of received ideas is so extensive, complex and deeply felt.

This characterized much of the reaction last year to Louann Brizendine's claims about male-female differences (see e.g. "Bible Science stories", 12/2/2006; "David Brooks, neuroendocrinologist", 9/17/2006). The worldwide reaction to the "gender happiness gap", a few months ago, was another nice example (see "Gender-role resentment and Rorschach-blot news reporting", 9/27/2007; "The 'gender happiness gap': statistical, practical and rhetorical significance", 10/4/2007).

The current world-wide blossoming of articles about testosterone and humor, based on an article in the BMJ's Christmas spoof issue, is also mostly of this kind. Aside from the small problem that the original article was (literally) a joke, it was a great opportunity for the world's journalists, because of the complex structure of biological differences and local cultural norms for them to play with. You can see this at work in the some of the local adaptations around the world, e.g. "Men make more gags than women", Sify, 12/22/2007

Can you fathom why do we have so many male comedians in Bollywood? Well, scientists have the answer to it.

According to a recent study, male hormones such as testosterone is the reason behind a good sense of humour.

These male hormones fuel aggression which, in turn, develop humour, said the study conducted by a former consultant dermatologist Sam Shuster.

The author also offers a (rather inaccurate) neurorealist interpretation of the same study that set Christopher Hitchens off last year (see the links in "Flacks and hacks and Hitchens", 12/14/2006, for details):

About two years ago, researchers at Stanford University claimed on the basis of studies of brain patterns that a gender divide do exist while it comes to appreciating humour. Women generally place a greater emphasis on the language, and use a more analytical approach.

The first commenter, Santosh, gets right to the point:

Men always will remain one step ahead with respect to women,be it in any field of life.Women should better accept this fact.

About a century ago, Rudyard Kipling offered an explanation based on evolutionary psychology for the idea that women are humor-deficient:

She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast
May not deal in doubt or pity—must not swerve for fact or jest.
These be purely male diversions—not in these her honour dwells—
She the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.

Kipling's verse version of this theory is out of fashion, since it was deployed in opposition to the idea of women's suffrage, now a settled issue in western countries. But it stands in a long line of more-or-less serious attempts to understand the biological and social nature of sex differences, in humor as well as in other areas. Some of the attempts have been transparent political rationalizations, like Kipling's; others have been decked out in more scientific attire, like Brizendine's, despite being equally without empirical support; others have been somewhere between spoof science (like Shuster's paper) and plain old bad science (like the recent claims about sex differences in the American electorate's reponse to the current presidential candidates, based on an fMRI study of 20 subjects recruited at Stanford: see "Flacks and hacks and brainscans", 11/23/2007.)

But there's also quite a bit of good, solid science that bears on the questions raised by Kipling, Hitchens and Shuster. Some of the results are interestingly non-obvious -- though the set of received ideas in this area is so extensive and so internally contradictory that almost any result will make someone react the way Hitchens did to his (mis) interpretation of an fMRI study of sex differences in the appreciation of cartoons:

Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine?

This post is already far too long, but some other time, I'll review some of the good work on jokes, laughter and sex.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 23, 2007 10:31 AM