Magazine article Free Inquiry

Participatory Science and Mass Media

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Participatory Science and Mass Media

Article excerpt

The media frequently report new scientific breakthroughs, but they rarely report how these breakthroughs came about. As a result, the public knows little about the scientific method. This is unfortunate, as it prevents people from using the method in their daily lives or being able to properly assess the conclusions reached by researchers claiming to have conducted a properly controlled investigation.

Over the past few years, the MegaLab UK initiative has tried to address this issue by encouraging the public to participate in huge scientific experiments carried out in the mass media. The unusual nature of MegaLab UK can perhaps best be illustrated by describing two of the experiments that I designed for the initiative. The first was called "The Truth Test" and examined whether the public was better able to detect lies on television, on the radio or in newspapers. The second experiment was labeled "The Justice Experiment" and looked at whether jurors' decisions of guilt or innocence are influenced by a defendant's appearance.

In The Truth Test, well-known British political commentator Sir Robin Day was interviewed twice about his favorite films. In one interview, he consistently told the truth; in the other he consistently lied. Transcripts of these interviews were printed in the national newspaper the Daily Telegraph, broadcast on BBC national radio, and shown on "Tomorrow's World" (a BBC national science program). For each medium, the public was asked to choose which of the two interviews they believed contained the lies and to record their decision by telephoning appropriate numbers.

There was a huge response from the public, with over 41,000 people phoning in their decisions. Lies were detected by 73.4% of the radio listeners, 64.2% of the newspaper readers, and 51.8% of the television viewers. All three groups could detect the lies at above chance levels, and there were hugely significant differences between the detection rates of the three groups.

The Justice Experiment also took place on BBC1's "Tomorrow's World" program. Viewers were shown a film summing up a court case and asked to telephone their decision whether the defendant was guilty or not. Unknown to viewers, the country had been divided into two groups and a different film was broadcast to each. The two films contained exactly the same evidence about a burglary. However, in one film the defendant was played by an actor who had been previous judged by a panel of 100 people as resembling the popular stereotype of a criminal - unattractive with crooked nose and small eyes. In contrast, the defendant in the other film had been judged as not resembling this stereotype; he was more attractive with a baby-face and had large blue eyes.

Again, there was a huge response, with over 64,000 people phoning in. Forty-one percent of viewers found the stereotypical defendant guilty while only 31% picked the nonstererotypical defendant. In short, there was a difference of a highly statistically significant 10% simply because of the defendant's appearance.

A slightly different version of the same experiment was carried out in the Daily Telegraph. Different editions of the paper carried evidence about corporate fraud. …

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