July 27, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Media Perpetuates Lazy Thinking

Lazy reporters don’t do their homework, two critics in different fields complain.

The Conversation (“academic rigor; journalistic flair”) is a unique venue that allows scientists to present alternative opinions, explain their findings to the public, or question a consensus. Unfortunately, they rarely question their own philosophical biases. Here we see two psychologists and a paleontologist criticizing false notions that deserve to die, but are kept alive by reporters who need to learn critical thinking.

Situationism

According to Luke Smillie and Nick Haslam of the University of Melbourne, a “zombie theory” that should be dead keeps resurrecting. It’s called situationism—a denial of human personality. Dreamed up by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s, it supposes that people respond to situations only, not to personality traits. Smillie and Haslam in The Conversation show how this idea was soundly debunked in the ensuing decades (it’s like denying climate just because the weather changes, they say), but crops up again from time to time in the media.

Time and again, the spectre of situationism has reappeared, causing a groaning sense of déjà vu for personality psychologists.

The theory has even spread beyond psychology, with a prominent behavioural economist recently claiming that Mischel’s “great contribution to psychology” was to show that there is “no such thing as a stable personality trait”.

Despite being buried by decades of research, situationism keeps kicking. According to one commentator, it “has morphed into something beyond the veracity of its arguments”. It has become an ideology.

They attribute this persistence of error as due to (1) lazy thinking and (2) the appeal of a surprising story. They do not, however, question the authority of their own field (psychology) that participated in the generation and persistence of this false notion, even though they recognize that scientists fall prey to the same weaknesses.

Human Origins

Darren Curnoe at The Conversation asks, “Is it back to the future for human origins science or just a case of science media misleading us again?” The word “again” bespeaks more persistence of error. Frequent readers of CEH will recognize the concerns about science reporting:

The loss of specialist knowledge among journalists also means that what scientists say is frequently taken at face value, without interrogation of the methods, facts or interpretations at the centre of a discovery.

Journalists also often treat science as different to other domains of human endeavour. Science reporting these days too often lacks application of the kind of critical treatment that other subjects routinely receive.

Real scientists, he claims, are fallible humans subject to their own limitations and sociological influences:

That scientists differ in their opinions because evidence can be interpreted in multiple ways or just because of personal rivalry. Very little is black and white, or fixed, in science. Scientific knowledge is provisional.

The generation and promotion of scientific knowledge can be subject to sociological forces. Perverse career incentives or institutional priorities sometimes conflict with the interests of science itself.

Because most science reporters don’t recognize these factors, they tend to present science as settled fact, delivering up tidbits that fit their 24-hour news cycle. Curnoe, a former journalist himself before he entered his science career, thinks that much of science media is untrustworthy, and the problem is growing.

What about in his own field of human origins? There has been “acrimonious debate” about where humans evolved, he admits. The majority believe humans originated in Africa and migrated to Europe and Asia, but he thinks certain Chinese scientists have a bias to present their Homo erectus fossils (e.g., Peking Man), to support an Asian origin for nationalistic reasons. Curnoe is upset at the “unbalanced and inaccurate” reporting that gives credence to the Chinese narrative. But is his own narrative impeccable?

In uncritically promoting the new Chinese fossils as challenging the prevailing African origins model, they fail to mention, for example, the existence of human remains in Ethiopia dating up to 195,000 years old; much older than those found in China. Or the uncertainties surrounding the dating of the Chinese fossils themselves.

They ignore the overwhelming evidence from genetics accumulated in thousands of published studies that humans evolved in Africa, regardless of when. And the many articles about the genetic clock and the timing of the emergence of modern humans estimated from DNA data.

But as we have repeatedly shown, these “thousands of published studies” keep getting overturned (7/02/16). Today’s consensus story is vastly different than ones depicted in old Time-Life books or National Geographic cover stories. Is Curnoe critical enough of his own biases? Is he trashing the Chinese to promote his favored narrative because of sociological factors influencing him? Does he consider the possibility that both camps are wrong?

His appeal for balance is well meaning, but his arguments smack of appeal to authority, bandwagon, and glittering generalities. The physician needs to heal himself of the “sloppiness” he finds in others.

One thing we can all agree on: secular science reporters rarely exhibit the critical thinking they should. That’s one of the main reasons our readers are attracted to CEH: we don’t accept bluffing by scientists. We don’t kowtow to the presumptive authority of “science” (an overly broad category). Their claims must stand on the evidence and the logic. Scientists don’t get a pass here. And we hope we set an example for other reporters on how not to be a toady for the latest university press release.

 

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