The SCIENCE of pop science by MLR

There's something that bugs me about organizations or TV shows or YouTube channels or what have you that purport to proselytize the wonders of science to the masses. Because I'm in a mood, I'm going to attempt to articulate that right now.

What got me thinking about this again was, I was bored and so out of morbid curiosity I watched a video from the Game Theorists channel on YouTube. Every now and then I do this, to fulfill the same basic emotional need I can also get from watching a multi-car pileup progress . Now, as I understand it, there's some controversy over this channel. It has a hardcore fanbase and is quite popular, and I believe it has been deemed a natural law that anything popular on the internet must generate a certain amplitude of violent counter-reaction. It's probably a variant on Newton's laws of motion. Anyway, the creator of it at this point has, in accordance with this law, become jaded to criticism, likely because the bulk of the criticism he receives leaves, shall we say, much to be desired. Understandable. You've achieved fame and fortune, keep doing what you're doing.

What bothers me about this channel isn't so much the content (which seems to be everyone else's problem), but more the conceit. This channel, and a lot of other things like it, loves to throw around the word SCIENCE. And in this context it must be spelled with all caps, yes. But what Game Theory is all about is taking a mechanic or a plot device or some other aspect of a game that doesn't really make much sense and then do an amusing bit by trying to explain how it MIGHT make sense after all. That's cute and fun, but it's not... science. In fact, watching some episodes of the show, I get the impression the creator's method relies more on the techniques of conspiracy theorists: you come up with a possible explanation for something (a "theory", if you will), and then you do a ton of research in order to back that explanation up. You stop when you feel you've made a good case and you say 'theory proved!'

It's probably worth stating that this gets the philosophy of science precisely backwards. I know a lot of scientists in reality do tend to work that way, but the point is they really shouldn't. What you should do is come up with a possible explanation (a hypothesis) and then do everything in your power to DISPROVE that hypothesis. If you have a hard time doing that, then you know you're on to something. But if you disprove it you're done, and you try again with a revision. It's not as cool as saying "This is the truth", but that's the general idea behind the scientific method. It's also why peer-review is so damned important, because it turns out that people (even scientists!) aren't very adept at thinking this way about their own ideas. Kind of the same reason all fiction writers benefit from having an objective editor.

Game Theory's whole concept cannot possibly work that way, of course, because it would take no effort at all to disprove any theory you come up with that explains a silly mechanic that's not meant to be accurate to the real world. You can see this just by reading the comments section on any given Game Theory video. In which case, MatPat needs to stop using the word SCIENCE to describe his videos. That's not what he's doing.

Game Theory of course gets that part wrong, but the channel has a lot of other content associated with it as well, including one that always titles the videos "The SCIENCE of [insert topic here]". This one gets it wrong in a subtly different way, and it gets it wrong in a way that a lot of other pop science things get it wrong. This one's conceit is to pose a question (the most recent one is something on the order of "Can Five Nights at Freddie's actually kill you with fright interrobang?!?!") and then infodump on the audience in an effort to answer said question. The SCIENCE in question then is the info being dumped.

It kind of hearkens to my problem with how I was taught science in public school in the US, which was essentially to be handed a textbook and told to memorize certain things from it. I was expected to think those certain things were cool, I guess. Now, in my case, I actually did end up internalizing a lot of that stuff, because I in fact DID think it was pretty cool, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't work for most people. This YouTube show, or things like IFLS (I F***ing Love Science) take kind of the same approach, where you're just supposed to be wowed by the facts they're presenting, and that's supposed to magically generate interest in science for people who aren't involved with research. It's... a noble goal, I suppose, but in the end, I AM a bonafide scientist now, and these types of things mostly just make me cringe.

First of all: not everything in science is exciting. Science being exciting isn't why science should be funded in the first place. It should be funded because there's a CHANCE that the science people are doing will end up turning into something useful. Fact is, exploratory research is funded because no one knows how to predict which bit of science will end up being exciting, so the only option is to just throw money around and allow everyone to work on whatever the hell they want in the hopes someone makes a breakthrough that ends up being useful. We know this is a good option because some old Scottish guy who spent his time dicking around with loops of wire and batteries invented electricity, and no one at the time thought it was particularly useful or interesting. But this is the reality, and so posing every little advancement as "Wow, isn't SCIENCE so cool ALL THE TIME" is misleading. People catch on; they smell the bullshit. Your approach ends up causing the reverse effect you intended it to. IMO, it's better to be honest.

Second of all, painting science as being awesome all the time washes over just about everything that actually occurs in the course of scientific research. I can say from experience that a typical research project goes like this: a.) come up with idea to investigate; b.) do some background reading, formulate some tests, start writing code or whatever you need to get some experiments going; c.) find out your experimental concept was egregiously flawed in some way, and proceed to make endless tweaks; d.) get frustrated, talk to collaborators to get help; e.) kind of get on the right track; f.) work out a very noncommittal answer because it turns out your data isn't really good enough to answer the question you had originally asked; g.) publish, use lots of qualifiers, and go beg for more money to get better data so you can do it all slightly better next time.

You want to know why it seems like medical professionals are constantly changing their minds about what kinds of foods and drinks are bad/good for you? Because what I just described above is how they're doing their research. The problem is just that medicine is hip and relevant to most people, so every one of those noncommittal answers ends up making headline news and gets blown totally out of proportion. Or it gets discussed in a post by IFLS, or in a video on YouTube trying to make some point about how playing a dumb horror game will give you a heart attack. Again... this is counterproductive, because you're not telling the whole story. If people knew the whole story they'd know WHY the scientists' opinions keeps changing. It's not because they're incompetent, which is the impression most people will get when you portray every incremental study as a breakthrough; it's because they're still working on the goddamned project. You shouldn't call you car mechanic incompetent if you stop him 1/3 of the way through fixing your car and then found out your car wasn't working.

And that's how science should probably be portrayed. Not as SCIENCE but as science. Right*?

*Get it? I'm ending with a qualifier that makes the previous statement more noncommittal and also invites peer-review.

The SCIENCE of pop science


11 September 2017 at 16:22:52 MDT

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    Everything must bow to the great ad revenue.

    • Link

      I suppose that must be a good chunk of the problem. Capitalism ruins everything.

  • Link

    Media blaring out preliminary results. Meanwhile mundane long term studies and basic research are quietly ignored.

    Then again, if you want to use a gamer analogy for science, think of all those WOW gamers 'grinding' away. And more often than not, that 'breakthrough' allowing you to get a hot date with the Worgen gal is just another glitch in version 2 of the game. Start over. :P

    • Link

      Yeah, that's also a good point. Sometimes people publish bogus results, and it takes a while before the community figures it out. But in the meantime, news outlets pick it up and run screaming with it.