Posted by: Chris | June 15, 2010

Science and the Press

In the course of an article deflating overhyped claims about the potential revelations of fMRI scans, Jonah Lehrer chides “scientists” in the generic “to anticipate that the universe is always more networked and complicated than reductionist approaches can reveal.”  He quotes a Karl Popper analogy to clocks and clouds (one is orderly and comprehensible, the other irregular and unpredictable) and says:

The mistake of modern science is to pretend that everything is a clock, which is why we get seduced again and again by the false promises of brain scanners and gene sequencers. We want to believe we will understand nature if we find the exact right tool to cut its joints. But that approach is doomed to failure. We live in a universe not of clocks but of clouds.

It is certainly an admirable sentiment to advocate, but, as one of Andrew’s readers notes, not one that scientists need all that much lecturing on:

That is the basic definition of the scientific profession – to expect that cycle. Newton knew that he had only reached his own incomplete understanding by “standing on the shoulders” of giants and the scientific community has not forgotten the lesson. They know and, yes, anticipate that each new discovery about the universe will raise more questions than it will answer.

Instead, as Andrew’s reader points out, it is often the popular press and science journalists (like Lehrer and especially like his employer Wired magazine) that tend to assume too much and make the broad reductionist claims that make scientists cringe.  Geneticists didn’t think the Human Genome project would explain all human variation and physcists don’t care about “God particles;” these claims are placed in their mouths by overenthusiastic secondary sources.  Even the examples Lehrer picks out, of fMRIs serving as “a portrait of the soul,” come from NPR, not a science journal.  Lehrer complains that “time and time again, an experimental gadget gets introduced…and we’re told it will allow us to glimpse the underlying logic of everything.”  But who tells us these things?  Not “scientists,” but their synthesizers in the media, including Lehrer himself:

“[from the Amazon description of How We Decide] The first book to use the unexpected discoveries of neuroscience to help us make the best decisions.

Since Plato, philosophers have described the decision-making process as either rational or emotional: we carefully deliberate, or we blink and go with our gut. But as scientists break open the mind’s black box with the latest tools of neuroscience, they re discovering that this is not how the mind works…The trick is to determine when to use the different parts of the brain, and to do this, we need to think harder (and smarter) about how we think.

Jonah Lehrer arms us with the tools we need, drawing on cutting-edge research as well as the real-world experiences of a wide range of deciders from airplane pilots and hedge fund investors to serial killers and poker players. Lehrer shows how people are taking advantage of the new science to make better television shows, win more football games, and improve military intelligence. His goal is to answer two questions that are of interest to just about anyone, from CEOs to firefighters: How does the human mind make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better?

Physician, heal thyself.

[Update: Corrected to make it clearer that Andrew’s reader believes the popular press is at fault for the “cycle of disappointment” and to link to the comment in question.]



  1. Andrew’s reader had your insight first – “It is the popular press, not scientists, that have fallen into a cycle of anticipation and disappointment.” (Or maybe it was a Newton-Leibniz thing.)

    Unlike last time you started nipping at science writers, this critique is on point. I had hoped Lehrer was lamenting our – and scientists are, at least, complicit in this – penchant for assuming without argument that, of the set of contingent propositions, we are only capable of knowing those that are (perhaps in principle) testable. (This assumption, often only respected in the breach, is obviously false. Introspection yields untestable, contingent, knowledge, and it seems to me an open question whether we can ever state some “know-how” in language that science can deal with.)

    But, no, he was just accusing scientists of denying a methodological fact of which they are proud.

  2. Oops. Yes, The first setence of the fifth paragraph was intended to concur with the reader. Sloppy on my part.

  3. As for your larger point, you are probably right. Scientists are steeped in the idea of the necessity of empiricism for knowledge (for good reason, I might add), and their struggles to explain the knowledge imbedded in introspection and intuition in there terms are seen as simply a questioned remaining to be answered rather than a wholly seperate source of knowledge. Ironically, Lehrer’s above cited book is another attempt to solve this perhaps unsolvable riddle.

  4. […] had Lehrer spent more time experimenting with the game he cited and less time poking around for a grand theory to peddle, I suspect he would have had some genuinely interesting things to say.  Here’s to […]

  5. […] been the metacommentary that has piqued my interest the most.  Previously on the Lure, we have discussed on whether researchers or science writers bear most of the blame in overhyping more mundane […]

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