Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hollywood Stars

We here on MT regularly criticize, or even lampoon, studies that we think are trivial or over-sold or over-priced.  Often this involves 'studies' that seem to have very little serious scientific value beyond curiosity, which can sometimes border on circus (such as digging up Tycho Brahe to get his DNA, or sequencing a 115 year old woman to see what genes 'made' her live that long, or desperately seeking to send men to Mars with butterfly nets to catch Martian life).

But these kinds of studies, not to mention huge mainlining studies like many GWAS and related expensive, exhaustive studies are all over the news.  This is not just because the investigators are so quick to brag about their work and claim its high importance, because eventually the wolf-crying would wear too thin.  The studies also sell.  Print and visual media people may not always be deep thinkers, and may be unduly gullible when talking to professors, but they know that there are readers eager to eat up the stories they write.

So the fault, Dear Brutus, may be in ourselves.  Are we just negative spoil-sports who simply wan to take all the fun out of science?  In many ways, the answer is Yes.  Science, real science that is, is a technically difficult attempt to understand Nature.  If universities and journalism worked as they should (from this perspective), there would be a lot less of this science-marketing and perhaps better science.  Hoopla and its rewards alter what people think of doing or believe they can be funded to do.

Of course, lots of really good science is being done along with the chaff, but the chaff is too expensive and too integrated into what people in universities, and media people in the real world, are pressured for many different reasons (not least being to earn a living) to do.

Of course, nobody pays any serious attention to grumps like us, even if our points about the science itself were actually sound, as we at least believe them to be.  So we and MT (except for Holly's posts) are at worst harmless and perhaps at most, laughable.  On the other hand, we do have a suggestion to make that would remedy both the  problem of costly overblown trivial science, and our own perhaps overblown criticism:

We need to establish a category of Entertainment Science, things with trivial, man-bites-dog human-interest, minimal theoretical value, and great telegenic content, and where the profit motive is legitimate rather than corrupting.  Government, being duly prudent, should be banned from funding any such science.  Instead, there are deeper pockets elsewhere, and people with the appropriate experience, desires, and expertise:  Entertainment Science should be paid for by Hollywood.


occamseraser said...

It's too late. The OoH (Out of Hollywood)EntSci interbred with and ultimately replaced OldSci as the former spread unchecked and unreviewed (AKA "open") via the WWW. From Darwinius to Ardipithecus and on to Au. sediba, the hype-brid EntSci thrived and prospered at the expense of the slowly reproducing, methodical OldSci.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, if I understood any of this hyper-twitterlike abbreviated message, I'm sure I'd agree with it!

I think most people already can't tell the difference between EntSci and OldSci....

occamseraser said...