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A Source of Scientific Bias: The Fear of Boring People


The Guardian notes a source of scientific bias in brain-scan studies that applies more broadly as well:

One way of critiquing a piece of scientific research is to read the academic paper in detail, looking for flaws. But that may not be enough, if some sources of bias might exist outside it, in the wider system of science.

By now you'll be familiar with publication bias: the phenomenon where studies with boring, negative results are less likely to get written up or published.

In other words, scientists are in a sense just like journalists. We -- I speak for the latter -- do not like to report that we do not know, haven't the slightest idea, why or how something happened. That's not a story. No one is going to care enough to read it. It's boring and it's disappointing.

There's a built-in professional bias in favor of finding an explanation, even if it has to be imagined and then backed up with supportive quotations. The explanation should be crisp. It should be simple. It should be easily summarized somewhere around the second paragraph of the article.

Among Darwin-doubters, I think this is often overlooked as a source of the average biologist's reluctance to relinquish his faith in the crisp, simple, easily summarized theory of natural selection.

To force yourself to admit that you just plain don't understand why life arose, what accounts for its evolution, goes against every fiber of the personality of a storyteller. And that ultimately is what a historical scientist is.