I was listening this morning to an NPR Morning Edition story by Allison Aubrey about a study that found that if mice drink lots o’ joe, they’re less likely to suffer from little tiny cases of Alzheimers. It was a fine piece, but to a large degree because it spent most of its time undoing the very reason that the story was on the air. The story’s pitch was: Coffee prevents Alzheimers! The bulk of the story was: In mice! Maybe! Other studies on humans are provocative but inconclusive! There are other factors! We don’t know! Maybe! Mouse study isn’t really all that significant!
On the one hand, it’s admirable that NPR spent so much of its time getting us past the headline. On the other hand, isn’t it a little bit depressing that we need to be told over and over again that scientific studies rarely are conclusive about big points and biological correlations? Are we still that unschooled in the scientific method that 450 years after the birth of Francis Bacon (and a thousand years after Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, if you want to get technical about it) we need a refresher course in science’s nervous stepwise progress every time the media report on a scientific study? Apparently, yes.
Then, as if NPR were thinking exactly the same thoughts, the very next piece (by Alix Spiegel) was about how a tiny study got turned into a cultural meme:
In the spring of 1993 a psychologist named Francis Rauscher played 10 minutes of a Mozart Piano Sonata to 36 college students, and after the excerpt, gave the students a test of spatial reasoning. Rauscher also asked the students to take a spatial reasoning test after listening to 10 minutes of silence, and, after listening to 10 minutes of a person with a monotone speaking voice.
And Rauscher says, the results of this experiment seemed pretty clear. “What we found was that the students who had listened to the Mozart Sonata scored significantly higher on the spatial temporal task.”
The story tracks how this modest research among a tiny, non-random group led to a small industry of Mozart for Babies CD’s, the state of Georgia distributing free Mozart CD’s to every newborn, and even death threats against Rauscher for having the temerity to report that she did not observe the same beneficial results from listening to rock and roll.
Why did this basically insignificant study generate so much interest?
It’s probably a couple of things, Rauscher says. Americans believe in self-improvement, but also are fond of quick fixes. And as Rauscher points out, parents care desperately about their children.
Sure. But that’s missing the primary cause in the sequence of events:
The first call came from Associated Press before Rauscher had even realized that her paper was due to be published. Once the Associated Press printed its story the Mozart Effect was everywhere.
“I mean we were on the nightly news with Tom Brokaw. We had people coming to our house for live television,” Rauscher says. “I had to hire someone to manage all the calls I had coming in.”
The headlines in the papers were less subtle than her findings: “Mozart makes you smart” was the general idea.
Americans may have embraced the Mozart-makes-babies-smart meme because we love our poor dumb babies so much, but we got the idea from the AP and the rest of the media that followed AP’s lead. The media played on American’s love of babies, self-improvement, and quick fixes to serve up exactly what we wanted to hear.
So, I’m willing to acknowledge that we have a stupidity gene that causes strong conclusions to wipe out the reasoning that led to them. But the media are supposed to be helping us to get past our natural tendency toward blunt-edged thinking. Instead, over and over it dangles juicy conclusions in front of us, appealing to our fear of disease and our urgent desire to give our babies the competitive edge they need to crush lesser babies whose parents do not love them as much. The good science reports — like this morning’s on caffeinated mice — dangle exciting conclusions in front of us but then explain why we shouldn’t have gotten so excited by them. The bad ones — most of them — play upon the fact that for some reason, we seem unable to remember how science actually works…and then reinforce that forgetting, over and over.
By the way, I wonder if one other reason we forget how science works is that we are taught about the scientific method by performing experiments in school that establish known results. When the lima beans kept in the dark don’t grow, we’re told that the experiment worked because it proves that lima bean sprouts need light. The teacher doesn’t mention that maybe it was because that side of the jar happened to be in the path of hostile bacteria or that the distribution of the beans was not sufficiently randomized. Only many years later is it broken to us that the scientific method is more about eliminating false hypotheses than proving positive causation.