See the bigger picture when reading media reports of new scientific findings

Think a new study touted by the media is too sensational? Take the long view of such reports, as sociologists and other researchers do:

One solution for reporters that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention yet, but should, is the value of talking to social scientists — historians of science and medicine, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists of science– in the process of reporting about research. Experts in these disciplines who examine the practice of scientific and medical research from outside of it are in a great position to give reporters, and by extension their readers, insight into where new scientific knowledge came from, what sort of agenda might be motivating the people involved, the cultural meanings attached to particular scientific findings, what questions were being asked—and what questions weren’t asked, but should have been.

To see how, take a look at a story from earlier this week that nicely illustrates the value a social scientist can bring to how a science story is reported: Did you hear that hurricanes with feminine names are deadlier than ones with male names because people’s sexist bias causes them not to take female storms as seriously? As Ed Yong reported in National Geographic’s “Phenomena”, it’s probably not true. Yong talked to a social scientist who helped break down the reasons why – from weaknesses of the methods to the context of other factors already known to affect the deadliness of storms. Check out the reporting and ensuing discussion here…

“Almost every time one of these studies comes out, it’s promoted as evidence that ‘X single factor’ is a decisive culprit,” said Chloe Silverman, PhD, a sociologist and historian of science in Drexel’s Center for Science, Technology & Society, whose current project is focused on people’s approaches to understanding pollinator health. “But there’s plenty of evidence that a combination of factors contribute to honey bee health problems.”…

And journalists tend to follow particular narrative conventions, such as “the discovery just around the corner” or “the intractable mystery,” Silverman noted. “But social scientists who study science are in a better position than most to both identify those tendencies and offer more realistic descriptions of the pace and progress of scientific research.”

There is probably some irony here that Drexel’s media relations is pushing this point of view even as it is a helpful correction to the typical approach journalists take to the latest scientific findings. To be honest, it takes time in sociology and other fields to develop credible hypotheses, data, and theories. Researchers interact with other research to further their ideas and build upon the work that has already been done. Reaching consensus may take years or it may never completely happen.

I wonder how much social and natural scientists could do to better communicate the full scientific process. In a world that seems to be going faster, science still takes time.

Living Earth Simulator to model social world

Here is an interesting project, the Living Earth Simulator, that hopes to take a lot of data and come to conclusions about social life:

Described as a “knowledge collider,” and now with a pledge of one billion euros from the European Union, the Living Earth Simulator is a new big data and supercomputing project that will attempt to uncover the underlying sociological and psychological laws that underpin human civilization. In the same way that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider smashes together protons to see what happens, the Living Earth Simulator (LES) will gather knowledge from a Planetary Nervous System (PNS — yes, really) to try to predict societal fluctuations such as political unrest, economic bubbles, disease epidemics, and so on.

Orchestrated by FuturICT, which is basically a consortium of preeminent scientists, computer science centers around the world, and high-power computing (HPC) installations, the Living Earth Simulator hopes to correlate huge amounts of data — including real-time sources such as Twitter and web news — and extant, but separate approaches currently being used by other institutions, into a big melting pot of information. To put it into scientific terms, the LES will analyze techno-socio-economic-environmental (!) systems. From this, FuturICT hopes to reveal the tacit agreements and hidden laws that actually govern society, rather than the explicit, far-removed-from-reality bills and acts that lawmakers inexorably enact…

The timing of EU’s billion-euro grant is telling, too. As you probably know, the European Union is struggling to keep the plates spinning, and the LES, rather handily, will probably be the most accurate predictor of economic stability in the world. Beyond money, though, it is hoped that the LES and PNS can finally tell us why humans do things, like watch a specific TV show, buy a useless gadget, or start a revolution.

Looking at the larger picture, the Living Earth Simulator is really an admission that we know more about the physical universe than the social. We can predict with startling accuracy whether an asteroid will hit Earth, but we know scant little about how society might actually react to an extinction-level event. We plough billions of dollars into studying the effects and extent of climate change, but what if understood enough of the psychology and sociology behind human nature to actually change our behavior?

I don’t know about the prospects of such a project but if the BBC is reporting on it, perhaps it has a future.

A couple of statements in the description above intrigue me:

1. The simulator will help uncover “the tacit agreements and hidden laws that actually govern society.” Do most social scientists think this is possible if we only had enough data and the right simulator?

2. The comparison between the natural and social sciences is telling. The portrayal here is that the natural sciences have come a lot further in studying nature than social scientists in studying human behavior. Is this true? Is this a fair comparison – natural systems vs. social systems? How much “unknown knowledge” is really in each realm?

3. The coding for this project must be immense.

4. The article makes no mention of utilizing social scientists to help develop this project and analyze the data though the group behind it does have some social scientists on board.

Looking at the educationally rich Washington D.C. metro area

Based on recently released figures from the 2009 American Community Survey, the Washington Post describes the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, the most educated region in the country:

The data, drawn from questionnaires, underscore the academic primacy of the Washington area: 47 percent of adults – or nearly 2 million – hold bachelor’s degrees, the highest rate among the nation’s large urban areas. Six of the 10 best-educated U.S. counties are within commuting distance of the District.

Half of all degrees in the region are in natural and social sciences, well above the national average, under a broad Census Bureau definition of “science” that includes everything from nuclear physics to sociology. That’s a starting point for looking at variations within the region: So-called hard sciences reign beyond the Beltway, soft ones within.

There are some other interesting facts in here as well, such as the finding that the proportion of people of business degrees in the region is lower than the national average.

What I would be interested to know is how these statistics change the day-to-day lived experience of an average resident of the region. Are there more civic events with more involvement from nearby residents? Is there a large perceived gap between the lives of those who are well educated and those with less education? Do people strike up deeper conversations at any gathering? Does this concentration of people lead to more interdisciplinary work and research?