I hate the adage that “Opinions are like a**holes; everybody has them.” It’s correct, in that opinions are simply judgements that don’t necessary have to be supported by fact or logic. But good opinions are different; not everyone has those. I don’t mean “good” in the sense that they are good because they correspond to my worldview. I mean good in the sense that they are formed through some process of deep and critical thought and that they are supported by something other than a gut-level notion.
How do we know what we know? We all want truthful information, but deciding what is truthful is no simple task. More importantly, information is rarely completely truthful or completely untruthful. In other words, things are rarely black or white; they’re almost always gray.
I’ve read quite a bit about the concept of epistemology, which is the part of philosophy that deals with the questions of what is knowledge and where knowledge comes from. Without getting deep into philosophical babble, I want to share some thoughts on how one type of knowledge — scientific knowledge — is misinterpreted.
Recently, KOMU, the local NBC-affiliate owned by the School of Journalism, posted on its Facebook feed a link to a story about a new study that shows a relationship between being a child of a deployed soldier and being more prone to violent and anti-social outcomes. They included a comment that asked readers, “Does this study exemplify your personal experience with a deployed soldier’s child? Or, is this completely stereotypical and an affront on military families?” To suggest that this study is possibly “stereotypical and an affront to military families” suggests that a reader simply sharing his or her own anecdotal experience suffices as sufficient evidence that the study is wrong.
This is the kind of thing that pundits do — present something in the news and then try to stir up the pot by getting people to argue about the story. Asking people about their experiences with military children localizes and perhaps adds some context to the story. But the latter part, asking if the study is “stereotypical and an affront,” forgets that this study was conducted under some presumed scientific rigor.
This is why the public is distrustful of science. Because the implication from pundits (and I guess now, one local TV station) is that scientists might have some bias because the findings are what we don’t want to hear.
Don’t get me wrong. Scientists do have biases that unfortunately shape their studies. And even scientists who go to great lengths to control the influence of that bias have other sources of error creep into research. Lots of research is quite error-prone. Journalists should question scientific findings. But it must be done in the context of understanding the scientific process.
But, to frame the story as a dichotomy, that the study is valid because readers’ experiences add credence to it OR that experiences do not exemplify findings AND THEREFORE the study must be simply a stereotypical representation is wrong. And it’s certainly not good journalism.
Science has its problems. And it should be questioned. But it needs to be questioned on the basis of its methods and not on anecdotal gut feelings.
I’ll end this rant with a nod to the Daily Show for a recent piece on this very issue:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Weathering Fights – Science: What’s It Up To?|