Scientists could be understood better if only they'd explain themselves
So here’s something that won’t come as a surprise if you have season tickets for the Seattle Seahawks (the best football team in the known universe) or the Jacksonville Jaguars (the worst football team in the known universe): Good teams draw big crowds and bad teams draw small ones. That less-than forehead-smacking insight is what makes a new study in the business journal Applied Economics something shy of breaking news. According to the authors—economists from Nottingham University Business School and the University of Sheffield in Britain—the same rule holds for international cricket matches. And the headline of the press release announcing the study made no effort to conceal its sublimely obvious conclusion: “Strong teams attract crowds for international cricket,” it read.
But science is often a far more nuanced thing than it seems—provided it’s properly explained. There is a rich and regrettable tradition among journals to promote studies that fall into the category science journalists alternately refer to as “blinding flashes of the obvious” or “The Annals of Duh.” Take “Causes of Death in Very Old People,” for instance. Um…I’m going to guess old age.
Then there is this: “Blood Pressure Drugs Don’t Protect Against Colorectal Cancer”—though they may protect against, you know, high blood pressure. Or these: “Moderate Doses of Alcohol Increase Social Bonding in Groups” and “Dogs Learn to Associate Words With Objects Differently Than Humans Do.” If you already kind of guessed that people loosen up and feel friendlier when they’ve downed a shot or two, or that your dog can’t talk, you’d have been forgiven for giving these studies a pass.
But under the no-news veneer of all of the studies, there was true news to be found. Blood pressure drugs reduce the output of norepinephrine and some animal studies have shown that that neurotransmitter encourages the growth of colorectal cancer cells, but that finding wasn’t holding up in people. While human babies tend to group objects by shape—so once they know a ball is round they will assume all round things are balls until they have reason to believe otherwise—dogs seem to use texture or size as their way of defining categories. Being dogs, they may never move beyond that point. And as for the cricket findings: previous economic studies had always concluded that it was the closeness of the contest—in which two evenly matched though not necessarily terrific teams were playing—rather than the excellence of the home team that determined crowd size. Nifty findings all—and none of which you’d know anything about if you didn’t read past the headline of the study.
In a counterfactual age in which science is too often denied or ignored or carelessly shrugged off, it pays for the scientists themselves to consider all this. They no longer have the luxury of simply writing for other scientists—assuming, generally rightly, that that audience is sensitive to the nuance. They must, instead, write for all of us—the people who can best benefit from the science, if only we can understand it.