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This page last updated: Tuesday, September 3, 2002 7:14 PM

Science versus Sensationalism

Dr. C defines sensationalism as the use of language or media to stir our emotions and incite great interest. Its popular uses include impressing one's friends, selling more products, attracting more viewers, protecting one's reputation, influencing legal matters or public opinion and playing politics, among others. As you might infer, it's not necessarily a good thing.

My interest in sensationalism here stems from a desire to impress upon you one vital and urgent lesson: learn the facts! Nothing distorts modern society more than a misrepresentation of facts. It's epidemic. And while I may be sensationalizing myself, my goal is clear: to help you learn how to distinguish fact from fiction, theory from dogma, science from pseudoscience, knowledge from opinion and sense from nonsense. Such knowledge empowers us to make rational decisions about our careers, our purchases, our finances, our family matters, our personal relationships and our enjoyment of life, to mention a few. (see Remarkable Science Fact #1; this link will open in a new window.)

Convinced that facts are important? Think you know already how to distinguish truths from half-truths?

Check out these recent headlines in several notorious newspapers:

CONEHEAD SPACEMEN LANDED ON EARTH!
(Weekly World News, July 8, 2002)

WHY BILLY JOEL CRASH-LANDED IN REHAB: Booze spree after ex-lover spurned him
(The National Enquirer, July 8, 2002)

Tiny Particles are the Newest Pollution Frontier
(OC Register, July 8, 2002)

London's Sparrows in Free Fall
(Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2002)

DWARFS BLAST TV AD AS LOW BLOW
(New York Post, July 8, 2002)

While the degree of hype of these headlines vary, we live in a world bombarded with extravagant, exaggerated and sensationalist claims (except my work, of course). Not a moment goes by that some newspaper, radio, TV, magazine or Internet headline doesn't lure us with titillating sound-bites and promises, sinking us deeper in the quagmire of information and disinformation overload.

I'm reminded of a passage from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

Urge and urge and urge
Always the procreant urge of the world

I suspect Whitman was talking about more than procreation (i.e. sex). Whitman was quite aware of the world's penchant for rumor-mongering and gossip. He also vastly distrusted what most people said and, in fact, suggested that we examine the facts for ourselves:

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

What Whitman seems to be saying, and why I've chosen these passages as an introduction to sensationalism, is that the individual is responsible for determining the truth or falsity of experience and fact. We can know the world only by examining it on our own. In other words, don't take someone else's word for it (not even mine!)(see Remarkable Science Fact #2; this link will open in a new window.)

But how do you go about deciding what is real and not real, fact or fiction, informed opinion or prejudice? Just thinking about it makes your head swim, right?

Fortunately, there is a process for evaluating what you read, hear and experience and deciding for yourself. It's called critical thinking.

In this book called Becoming a Critical Thinker, Robert Todd Carroll, Professor of Philosophy at Sacramento City College, defines critical thinking as the ability to think clearly, accurately and fairly while evaluating the reasons for accepting some belief or taking some action.

He goes on to write:

When we're thinking critically, we're using our knowledge and intelligence effectively to arrive at the most reasonable and justifiable position possible. When we're thinking uncritically, no matter how intelligent or knowledgeable we are, we'll make unreasonable decisions and arrive at unreasonable beliefs or take unjustifiable actions--unless we are lucky and end up making the right choice for the wrong reasons! ...The goal of thinking critically is simple: to guarantee, as far as possible, that one's beliefs and actions are justifiable and can withstand the test of rational analysis. To achieve this goal one must rigorously scrutinize one's own beliefs and actions as well as the beliefs and actions of others. (see Remarkable Science Fact #3; this link will open in a new window.)

In science, this goal is achieved by conducting repeatable experiments or observations that exclude all other explanations. Indeed, the scientific method is the most rigorous process by which knowledge—repeatable, predictable and exclusive—can be uncovered. That isn't to say that non-scientific knowledge isn’t important; it is. But it serves a different purpose. And the boundary between the two can be blurred:

Carroll offers this explanation:

Good scientific theories share in common with good non-scientific theories the quality of being free from self-contradictions, consistent with experience, and free of ad hoc hypotheses to patch up holes or weaknesses. Also, all scientific and some non-scientific theories attempt to make sense out of the phenomena they are put forth to explain. Some metaphysical theories attempt to make sense out of all things which exist. Other non-scientific theories are less ambitious and attempt to make sense out of a single area of human experience, e.g., aesthetic or moral experience.

A good theory, regardless of whether it is scientific or not, must be sensible. But just how sensible a theory is depends upon the field in which it is offered and upon current knowledge, beliefs and values of those studying the subject. Generally, the best scientific theories are very rich: they explain and unify a great deal of experience and provide a picture of things as a whole. Generally, the best non-scientific theories provide a sense of value and significant meaning to the phenomena they explain or prescribe for.”

Now there's something to think about! (see Remarkable Science Fact #4; this link will open in a new window.)

On a more practical level, consider how you might verify the claims made by a newspaper, radio or TV anchorperson. You'll probably first want to decide whether the information presented is scientific (i.e. something that can be verified by experiment or repeated observation), experiential (something that happened to someone as reported by through their eyes or by an eyewitness), non-scientific (something that might have happened but cannot be verified by experiment or repeated observations) or fictitious (out of the realm of all known experience and possibility).

Categorizing information provides an avenue for verifying or refuting it.

If the claim is scientific, you may consult scientific journals (where original research, experiments and observations are reported) or the scientists who conducted the research. You could even design your own experiments and/or observations and conduct your own scientific investigation (but if you had to do that for every claim that was made by the news media, you would be one busy puppy!).

If the claim is experiential, you could put yourself in the same situation and evaluate for yourself what happened (realizing, of course, that conditions may have changed); you could go to the site, conduct measurements and observations and/or talk to the eyewitnesses; or you could search written records for accounts of similar experiences.

If the claim is non-scientific, you may need to conduct surveys, consult the literature, interview persons or hang out and hope it happens to you. Of course, there's little chance that you'll be able to verify the information, but you may build a credible body of information that suggests its veracity. (Just don't call it science.)

And if the account is completely fictitious, then you should just enjoy it!

Above all, take a critical look at the information being provided to you. Ask questions. Consult references and the internet. Ask experts. Learn how to build a body of evidence that supports your beliefs.

Learn to listen to all sides and filter them from yourself. (see Remarkable Science Fact #5; this link will open in a new window)

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