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Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Ethics of Junk Science

"Women, the weaker sex... at resisting food, researchers find".
This appeared in the Daily Mail a while back. This headline was based on a neuroimaging experiment, which, predictably, didn't prove anything of the kind. Yawn. I've written about this kind of thing before, and no doubt I will do again. But why do I do it? What's the harm in this kind of thing?

A cynic might say that this kind of thing is harmless fun - or at any rate, harmless. No-one really cares about articles like this, and no-one takes them seriously. No-one's going to read this article and start to think that all women are impulsive and gluttonous - at least not unless they were a sexist pig to begin with.

The opposite view is that this article represents a sexist attack on the rights and status of women (in this particular case), and more generally, that this kind of science writing promotes a reductionist view of life in which all of our problems are ultimately biological ones. This has the dangerous implication that our problems either can't be solved, or can only be solved through the application of some kind of pill or potion. Junk science writing of this kind, then, is actively dangerous.

Those are the two extremes. The truth, I assume, lies somewhere in between. No-one is going to read this one single article and become a sexist pig, just like this spectacularly awful article isn't going to make anyone hate hip-hop and no-one is going to listen to Baroness Susan Greenfield and decide they want to ban Facebook. It's just a couple of hundred words in the Daily Mail.

But while eating one packet of cookies won't make you overweight, scoff a packet every day and your waistline will suffer for it. Every crap science article in the newspapers is another portion of nonsense in the nation's diet; over time, it builds up. One simplistic, vaguely sexist popular science headline isn't going to do much harm; if that's all people read for years on end it's going to have an effect. And there are loads of them.

There's anothing point, though. Even if you don't have strong views on the particular issues at hand, you should care about the abyssmal standards of science journalism. I'm open to the idea that women are, on average, less able to restrain their hunger then men. It's probably not true, but I don't see that idea in itself as either implausible or inherently sexist. But what I do know is that it's a fairly difficult question. There are arguments on both sides. More generally, the controversy over human sex differences is a vast one, with a huge amount of evidence to consider, and it isn't going to be settled by one neuroimaging study, or even a hundred.

The implicit message of this kind of junk science writing is that all kinds of complex and difficult scientific questions are in fact really simple. If people were more aware of the difficulties inherent in answering even apparantly simple questions, they'd be less willing to settle for the easy, simple, entirely wrong answers when it comes to practical political and social issues.

Maybe that's too simplistic. But it wouldn't hurt.


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