Beware Simple Stories

May 12, 2015 by Gabe | [mmd] |

I'll tell you a secret that is likely to make me a pariah among the nerds. I don't like Malcolm Gladwell or Seth Godin or really most of the TED genre of pop culture factoids. I'm sure they are all fine upstanding citizens of the world but their brand of storytelling does not appeal to me. I avoid most science journalism as I avoid life-hack mythology. Hear me out before you condemn me as elitist.

As a kid, no one loved science more than I did. I collected science text books like most boys collected Hotwheels. I frequented the Whittier College swapmeet where $3 was all it took to fill a grocery bag with advanced chemistry, physics, and biology books. Before I was even a teenager, I could describe fundamental nuclear decay pathways. I was not particularly bright but I was obsessed.

I was drawn to the impossibly complex and ultimately unknowable details of the world. I poured over my subscriptions of Discover magazine and Popular Science, which were mere sparks to the grand studies I would pursue. They neither pretended to be authoritative nor conclusive. I loved them for the awe that bloomed from their pages but also for the recognition of how much I still had yet to know of the world. This awe drove me on to college and ultimately graduate school in chemistry. I loved chemistry for the experimental methods and the spirit of dismantling the world at a scale that was nearly unobservable. I loved it because it told a story with a thread that could be followed from the largest scale down to the smallest aspect of our physical experience. The story was expansive but logical. The story was without end.

This is all pre-amble to a single link by Terry Burnham about the influence of difficult to read questions on test results. It highlights the origin of my mistrust in mainstream science writing and the difference between someone that loves psychology and someone that just loves to read about psychology.

Roughly 3 years later, Andrew Meyer, Shane Frederick, and 8 other authors (including me) have published a paper that argues the hard-to-read presentation does not lead to higher performance.

This is my problem with pop science and the cult of science tourism. It is too final. Too conclusive. Too bite-sized. These morsels of facts are portrayed as in-depth studies. They are wrapped with a crudely drawn distribution curve on the cover and published to a tourism market anxious to become the indisputable happy hour experts on the psychology and physics of self-driving cars. They lead to unearned certainty in our world views and act as bludgeons against later course corrections.

I'm skeptical of big problems with small answers. As Burnham says, "Beware simple stories." A summary of thousands of hours of work should leave a spark, not smoldering embers. Unfortunately, once the popular press gets all they can from the first variant of a story, they seldom return to that topic. The original story is perpetuated even in the face of new data and interpretations until it is no longer commercially valuable. I look forward to future generations having their own "turns-out" books correcting our currently popular misconceptions.