Help, Help, I’m Being Oppressed!

I just noticed a post at Michael White’s Adaptive Complexity entitled, “Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog” (9 March 2008). It’s good. Go read it.

[I]n our culture we love the underdog, who sticks to his or her guns, in spite of heavy opposition. In this narrative, we have heroes, villains, and a famous, brilliant scientist proven wrong.

I’m sure you could pick out instances in science history where this story is true, but more often it is not. You wouldn’t know this from the pages of our major news media though; in fact you’d probably get the impression that the underdog narrative is the way science works. And many journalists may think that too; after all, most of them read (or misread) Thomas Kuhn when they were in college, and Kuhn brought this kind of narrative to a new high.

This is the narrative which I called the “David vs. Goliath of Scientific Establishment” story. White gives a specific example, concerning the public presentation of evolutionary biology; in physics, the problem can be even more fun, since the actual relationship between David’s revolutionary idea and Goliath’s orthodoxy often requires a hefty dose of mathematical reasoning to understand. When a typical statement by a physicist trying to sort the mess out might read, “Any embedding of your gauge group in either noncompact real form of E8 will always give you a nonchiral fermion spectrum,” well. . . the temptation will always be to plump for the “social” angle and emphasize the personalities of the physicists involved. The “oppressed underdog” story emerges quite naturally.

To be fair, or at least spread the misery around, biology can suffer from Popularizer Mathophobia, too. White’s example comes from sexual selection theory and relates to the role game theory might play in understanding the dynamics of a population. Oooh! Math! Scary!

(My “typical statement” is a paraphrase of Jacques Distler, who pointed out this problem almost six years ago.)

4 thoughts on “Help, Help, I’m Being Oppressed!”

  1. I think it’s incumbent on popularizers (whether journalists, scientists at the coalface or whatever) to make some effort to explain at least something of what the relevant mathematics is, in the cases where that’s really where the story lies. (If at all possible without lots of teh scary equations, but it’s amazing what a few very well-chosen graphs and the like can achieve.

    (The appalling standard of typical explanatory graphics – particularly statistical/data ones – in journalism is a whole ‘nuther post-topic. I do mean “well-chosen”, not the usual drivel.)

  2. White wrote:
    let’s make it clear right now that my intention is not to knock Dr. Roughgarden or her research

    How disappointing, since the research sucks. How does she explain the peacock’s tail? It’s merely an “admission ticket” to the resource-controlling cooperative game. But since she doesn’t explain why only males need admission tickets to this game, we are right back where we started!

  3. who pointed out this problem almost six years ago.

    Ah, the Bogdanov affair. Good times!

    The whole “String Wars” schtick is nourished and sustained by the same “David vs. Goliath” narrative.

    Even more pernicious, the “debate” over global warming is cast in the same terms (pernicious and ironic since, in this case, “David” is funded by Exxon-Mobil).

  4. The whole “String Wars” schtick is nourished and sustained by the same “David vs. Goliath” narrative.

    With the extra bonus irony that people who represented Goliath in the Bogdanov affair got to play David in the next installment.

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