Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Betsy McCaugheys And What To Do About Them

Betsy McCaughey is a conservative expert on health care reform and on why trying to do anything will Kill Your Granny And Get You Treated by Stalin in a Long Cold Corridor Smelling Of Fish Heads While Armed Guards Watch. It's hard to figure out where she got her training in health economics but never mind. The point about Ms. McCaughey and so many other media personalities like her is that their false utterances mostly go uncorrected.

Why is that the case? I have pondered the problem oh-so-many-times after reading some new piece of 'research' about how women can't navigate because they have no navigation gene and that's because they didn't have to learn to navigate, what with staying around the home-cave in the prehistoric eras while the menz were out navigating after the dinosaurs. I'm not exaggerating much here, and any self-respecting evolutionary biologist should rise up and ask why such 'research' is ever taken seriously. But they don't.

The ones I've known well enough to ask tell me that it's not their job to correct nutters, that they don't get rewarded for the corrections, that the nutters live inside their own little fortresses, never send their manuscripts outside it and that they run their own little journals where the peers doing the peer-reviews are other nutters. Or so I translate the more polite answers I get. And of course nobody gets promotions or tenure in the academia by correcting bad popularizations of research, especially when it's in another field. And the nutter field is, by definition, separate from other fields.

Hence the reason for the unchallenged status of all those anti-woman Evo-Psycho pieces.* But surely the same arguments cannot be used when it comes to Ms. McCaughey? After all, health care reform is not a field only studied by nutters?

Sadly, I think that they can. The goal of most academics is to be taken seriously as earnestly objective researchers (who want to get tenured and then promoted). Challenging McCaughey in public might make the challenger look biased, too, and that's not good inside the ivory towers (except where the ivories are from mammoths, of course). So in a very odd way the demand for academic objectivity is also the reason why it's so very hard to get proper criticism of political mouthpieces out into the popular media. Paying people for doing that might help, but even then you have to find someone tenured and with a full professorship. Tough, that.

We need websites which report on the accuracy and quality of controversial popularizations of research, along the lines of political sites which already do this. Getting those sites going would be in the ultimate interest of academics, because too much crap flowing out of those ivory towers will stain them.
*I use the term Evo-Psycho to describe certain types of evolutionary psychology only, viz. the kind which starts from JustSo stories about some mythical prehistoric past and then manipulates data to get support for those stories without looking at alternative explanations or the quality of the data or the appropriateness of the methods used.