Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Or we can overinterpret scientific findings

And apparently, we can do it in the other direction as well. As the folks over at Freakonomics illustrate, when the science seems to agree with our instincts or politics, we can take a very complex situation and oversimplify it to make a point that we would like to be true, whether it is or not. In their example, the relationship between environmental causes and the disappearance of honeybees is tenuous at best. But there are many environmental groups that claim it is clear as day - because this advances what their hearts believe to be true.

It is not just environmentalists that make this error. Many domains are very complex. Economies, ecologies, political systems, religions . . . . In most cases, there is not a direct link between any one input and one output. But if we WANT it to be true, we can find some scientific finding that we can take out of context and use to make our preferred point.

The general public just doesn't get science

Another example of how valid and reliable scientific evidence is often discounted or ignored by the general public.

A new study by researchers at Tulane University found that spanking leads to increased levels of aggression in children. They controlled for a "host of" factors such as depression, alcohol and drug use in the mother, natural levels of aggression, and more. They followed the childrens' behavior over many years, several ages, and 20 US cities.

And then in an interview, some TV talking head says the study is BS because he was spanked and he grew up just fine. This is a sample size of just 1, has no controlling factors, may not even be true (maybe he would have been even less aggressive if he hadn't been spanked), etc. etc. But I am sure that half the audience just nodded their heads and agreed with him. The insights provided by the science are wasted.

I guess we get what we deserve, don't we?