Friday, 3 June 2016

Reminder: scientists’ attitudes affect what they investigate

You may have seen the headline that a new species of praying mantis was discovered, and named after Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Here’s what I consider the really interesting part:

Typically, researchers study mantis specimens’ male genitalia to delineate their species. But Sydney Brannoch, the Ph.D. candidate at Case Western Reserve University who led the ginsburgae study, decided to study female mantis’ genitalia instead—and, thanks to her innovation, was able to distinguish Ilomantis ginsburgae as a new species. (The specimen she studied had actually been sitting around since 1967; you can learn more about Brannoch’s methodology here.)

One of the most important ways that scientists’ goals, attitudes, and beliefs can influence how science is done is in what question is asked. An anecdote (from here) about industry funding of scientific studies put it this way: “Industry funding doesn’t bias the results, but it does buy the question.” (Of course, given positive publication bias, the money/persistence to ask a certain question over and over can affect what we think we know about the answer to a question.) But it’s not just industry funding that influences what questions get asked. In a society where weight is seen as the obvious cause of any health issue a fat person might have, the idea of looking at causes that are correlated with weight instead of assuming it’s the weight itself might seem ridiculous and not worth investigating.




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