Friday, September 28, 2012

Like Clockwork

Anybody who has the slightest connection to the world of lutherie knows that every year, some engineer* in some corner of the world will discover the Secret of Stradivari--some odd treatment or technique that will allow any modern builder to replicate "the" sound** of the classic Cremonese instruments.  It's like those of us who follow biology know that every year--at least, if the popular press is to be believed--some researcher will discover "the" cure for cancer.  Really, if all the stories in the newspapers claiming that a cure for cancer is just around the corner were true, the dread disease would have been history long ago.

That last sentence should be in quotes--I lifted it verbatim from an article in this week's Economist that discusses a paper about why science journalism sucks with such regularity.  The paper*** focuses on the ten journal articles about ADHD that garnered the most attention from the popular media, and what happens after the big splash.  It concludes that the findings in each of the "top ten" are novel, generate testable hypotheses, and in eight out of ten cases, are unsupported by subsequent research. The paper refrains from slamming the media, but points out that the popular press is easily impressed by high-impact journals, top-tier universities, and seems unwilling to follow up and look for confirmation of splashy results. 

The Economist cops to some blame for this state of affairs, but also apportions some blame to the scientists themselves, because the follow-up articles don't make it into the same high-impact journals.  (Nobody mentions one of my least favorite things, the University Press Release, which is often horrible and swallowed whole by the media.)  So, it admonishes itself, and then lets itself off the hook.

And, on the very same page, there is this article: "Magic Mushrooms--Violins constructed from infected wood sound like those of Stradivari," about how some engineer in Switzerland has discovered the Secret of Stradivari...

*I don't know why, but it's practically always an engineer

**a bogus goal in itself; for one thing, there is no unified sound of Cremona, or even of any single maker, and for another, one of the things that makes these fiddles so prized is their protean sound.

***Gonon F, Konsman J-P, Cohen D, Boraud T (2012) Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn Out to be False: The Case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44275. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044275.  It's PLOS, so it's open access, and it's an amusing paper, so go read it.  


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