Saturday, January 07, 2012

A Matter of Narrative

This tweet from Bora Zivkovic brought my attention to Sam McNerney's post on the dangers of storytelling, specifically in pop psychology books.

1. Simplify, simplify!

Humans are cognitively driven to simplify, McNerney writes. "This cognitive tendency is a good thing most of the time – it helps us understand and organize the world. The byproduct, however, is a naïve conception of the world that tends to be too simple."

McNerney continues, "The more accurate picture is that life is a 'mess' and psychology -- neuroscience to a larger extent -- is still relatively young in its endeavors. Experts and enthusiasts know this, but the headlines on and some tweets within the psychology twittersphere suggest that most do not; they still try to sum up how human behavior works with a sound bit."

I agree, and would further point out that many news outlets try to sum up just about everything with a sound bit. Pop psych is no outlier in this.

However, pop psych is a watered-down version of the science of psychology, which is part of the larger scientific research corpus (in an era when the standing of social science within that corpus could become endangered; but that's another issue).

And, while pop psych tends to oversimplify by trimming away the messy bits, research suggests that this trimming away does not make pop psychology -- or its more formalized progenitur, psychology -- an outlier within the larger scientific corpus, either. It just simplifies using simpler, lay language.

How might peer-reviewed scientific research as a whole engage in simplification, and thereby fall into its own narrative traps? Through its suggested bias against negative results, for one.

2. The Rest of the Iceberg

"Journals don’t have policies against publishing negative results," wrote Curt Rice, who directs research and development at Norway's University of Tromsø. "The World Association of Medical Editors states, on the contrary, that 'studies with negative results … should receive equal consideration.' At the same time, there is research suggesting that statistically significant results increase the chance of publication, thereby lowering the odds that negative results get into print."

Negative results are experimental failures. They can also represent experimental screw-ups. They are by their very nature messy. But they are also valuable learning tools in several ways, and in ways that can impact multiple audiences: scientists, science students, and laypeople.

David Eaves, an advisor to several governments on open data, pointed his readers to this blog kept by microbiologist Rosie Redfield. Redfield is trying to replicate research results.

Eaves wrote, "Here is someone literally walking through their thought processes in a thorough, readable way. Can you imagine anything more helpful for a student or young scientist? And the posts! Wonderfully detailed walk throughs of what has been tried, progress made and set backs uncovered. And what about the candor! The admission of error and the attempts to figure out what went wrong."

This is not typical in science; Redfield's reporting was so unusual that Nature had named her one of the top ten science newsmakers of 2011. It led Eaves to ask, "Why isn't this the norm?"

(Eaves added that the type of dialogue Redfield created needed to appear in every field, not just in science but also in nonprofits and in business.)

One might argue that statistically significant results make for the better story. They simplify outcomes. Within the narrative of experimental design and implementation, statistically significant results become a "sound bit."

Replication is itself an issue when it comes to the scientific narrative, particularly with respect to the social sciences. (See, for example, this Science News article, which itself delves into the oftentimes messy world of statistics. Non-subscribers can read UC-Berkeley lecturer emeritus Juliet Shaffer's quote about replication here.)

In short, negative results are not sexy. Replication of results is not sexy, either, as framed in our current scientific narrative. Ultimately, that framing ties into funding. In my lay opinion, negative results and replication can be just as sexy as the "breakthroughs" that become disproportionately represented, particularly in the popular media. (I say "lay opinion" here because I am not in the trenches and my knowledge is limited. Feedback invited.)

It is no surprise that the media focuses on breakthroughs, according to metallurgist and science communications student Magdaline Lum. Or that "constantly reporting 'breakthroughs' raises unrealistic expectations," according to Darren Saunders, who leads the cancer research program at Australia's Garvan Institute.

And even the breakthrough stories are simplified. The bigger ones eclipse much more frequent, smaller accomplishments.

Overemphasizing big-ticket-item breakthroughs leads to a further misconception. According to Jonathan Haskel, an economics professor at London's Imperial College, the disproportionate air time paid to big breakthroughs has engendered a belief that science takes decades to realize a return on investment. Haskel's study of 30 years of science funding in Britain indicated otherwise.

"Everybody said to us, the trouble with science it takes 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, to get an outcome," he told Robyn Williams in an interview for ABC Radio's "The Science Show." "When we looked at the data, we found that was not the case, actually. We got quite a strong correlation between that substantial increase in spending and productivity growth about two years later. Which is rather faster than many of the stories that you hear about in the papers."

The papers talk about outer space or particular biological drugs, Haskel added. But those are only a small subset of science research as a whole.

The overemphasis on bigger and bigger breakthroughs, coupled with the de-emphasizing of negative results and certain replication studies, creates an illusion of superhuman perfection and reinforces the expectation thereof. And in my opinion, the popular media is not entirely responsible for this perception.

Changing the narrative -- adding the "mess" to science storytelling -- can help shatter a mythos of the unattainable.

3. When The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

"There is a misconception that to do research, you have to give up the ordinary pleasures of life: seeing friends, going to movies, having children."

Agora's Abby Tabor wrote about the importance of sharing information with the general public, not only about how scientists worked, but about how they lived their daily lives.

Biophysicist Federica Migliardo of the University of Messina told Tabor that young people viewed scientists as gods. "They imagine [scientists] live on Olympus, that we are geniuses, and that it would be impossible to reach our goals," Migliardo said. Girls especially labored under this misconception.

When one considers the human drive toward simplification, equating scientists with gods and geniuses is, in my opinion, the product of a current narrative existing within science, that at best de-emphasizes and at worst censors the failures and setbacks that are a natural and expected part of research. The popular media, already geared toward oversimplification, can only amplify the pre-existing bias. That bias has become well-entrenched via funding incentives and disincentives that are largely beyond the control of the scientists themselves.

Marie-Claire Shanahan, Associate Professor of Science Education at the University of Alberta, had experienced her own version of the "gods and geniuses" mythos when she asked, "Who is the traditional right type of person for science?"

"Traditional" was the definitive term. It conjured up the idea of repetition, an at-times blind adherence to a particular action or idea, the fallback of, "It’s just always been that way."

Traditions were designed to be taken for granted.

Traditions are simplifiers. In his essay on pop psychology, McNerney decried the tendency of pop psych books to "reduce human cognition into a monism -- 'go with your gut', 'think things through' or 'don't trust your intuition.'"

Here's another one: "[R]eal science students don't need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already."

And: "[T]here’s more rules to follow than room for creativity" in science.

That's what Shanahan's students had told her.

It turned out there were traditional ways of thinking about science and about scientists, both in education and in popular culture.

Shanahan began to better understand why one young woman, whom she thought would make an excellent science student, had insisted she wasn't cut out for it. "She was curious, outspoken, creative in her scientific thinking and when she found a question interesting she would pursue it endlessly until she was satisfied." The topics they had bandied about had ranged from climate change to DNA replication.

The student had shocked Shanahan by saying she wasn't scientist material.

Those misconceptions ranged across demographics, from urban to suburban to rural, public to private to technical schools, whose teachers varied widely in their educational experience and in their approach. Despite all those differences, a common stereotype arose about what made a good science student.

"Even when individual teachers do innovative and inspiring things, these ideas are still embedded in lab practices, such as the 'right answer' style lab reports," Shanahan wrote.

What's more, students showing real scientific curiosity could be penalized for stepping out of those "traditional" bounds. They could even be discouraged from pursuing scientific interests, either vocationally or avocationally, to which they were actually well-suited.

Pop psychology is not an outlier here, when it comes to engendering misconceptions through oversimplification -- specifically, through spinning the messy parts away from storytelling. On the contrary. Within the broader discourse in certain scientific circles, it fits right in.

Elissa Malcohn's Deviations and Other Journeys
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Anonymous Sam McNerney said...


Thanks for your thoughtful post, and I am glad my post sparked your intellect. The only thing I would add is that I think pop psychology books are ultimately a good thing. They engage the public with science and inspire me to write about psychology to try and understand human beings better. I am actually quite grateful for them, they have been a sort of gateway drug for the harder science.

12:28 PM  
Blogger e_journeys said...

Thanks, Sam -- and thanks also for your post. I agree that pop psych (and pop sci as a whole) is a meaningful and necessary gateway. As a layperson (though with a masters in psych), I rely on pop sci to give me a glimpse into what I otherwise don't have the training to understand at a more advanced level. (I'm also a sometime book reviewer for Psych Central.)

6:38 PM  

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