Return to Reasonable Arguments

Eric Michael Johnson at the Primate Diaries:

Collins can believe whatever he likes about his experience, as can anyone. We all live with our private fantasies to a certain extent. However Harris’ point is that in the admirable attempt to be inclusive, Nature‘s editors were foregoing their primary role as skeptical inquirers of sound science. Should they favorably review the next book on astrology if it also includes a reasonably good description of cosmic evolution? I think the point Harris makes is a good one and something we should seriously consider as scientists and citizens. We’ve seen how effectively faith has led the way in foreign policy decisions. Perhaps a return to reasonable arguments based on solid evidence would be a wiser course for the future.

A return to reasonable arguments. . . based on solid evidence. . . You know, I rather like it.

So, one might gather, does Sandra Kiume at Neurofuture, who made that catchphrase the recurring theme of Encephalon #30.

I’ve been trying to study the way science journalism works — and, often, doesn’t work — for a while now. Way back in March, whole eons of Internet time ago and before I even had a blag of my own, Russell Blackford and I discussed serious inaccuracies in media coverage of Wikipedia. Later, here at Sunclipse, I described a rough taxonomy of science journalism failures, and hypothesized that a tendency to “false balance” may well have skewed coverage on string theory when Smolin and Woit rolled their books out. Then, I summarized the story of an incident where New Scientist magazine was not just careless, but downright irresponsible.

These topics fall under the general rubrics of physics and technology, but popularization and journalistic coverage of neuroscience is also a big concern. I have the suspicion that brain and cognitive sciences will provoke the same reaction in the near future that evolution does today — and I’m far from the first to say so. Learning about how people learn about this science is, therefore, quite important.

And the outlook is not good. Compare the size of the wheat and chaff listings at the Neuro-Journalism Mill: the sheer quantity of misinformation stymies the attempt to summarize or classify it. Encephalon #30 brings two more relevant essays. First, the Neurocritic takes New Scientist to task for a sensational headline and an exaggerated claim about genetics and memory. Then, at Pure Pedantry, Jake Young takes the New York Times to task for an article which gets the facts of rodent spatial memory correct, but bungles the interpretation.

Interesting stuff. Now, I’m just waiting to see what the experts say about the possibility of glutamine-based antidepressants and the coverage it receives. I note that Denise Gellene’s story in today’s LA Times works a little to counteract the infamous “it’s all serotonin” story, a glib line spread by advertising but unsupported by science.

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