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Amusing case of self-defeating science writing

We’re all familiar with the gee-whiz style of science and technology writing in which hardly a day dawns without a cure for cancer, or a new pollution-free energy source, or some other amazing breakthrough.

We don’t always get the privilege of seeing such reporting shot down the moment it hits the presses.

Here’s journalist Matthew Philips:

What does it take for an idea to spread from one to many? For a minority opinion to become the majority belief? According to a new study by scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the answer is 10%. Once 10% of a population is committed to an idea, it’s inevitable that it will eventually become the prevailing opinion of the entire group. The key is to remain committed. . . . The research actually validates the entrenched strategy of the handful of House Republicans threatening to sink John Boehner‘s budget proposal. Turns out if you’re in the minority, you have less of an incentive to compromise than the majority does. Because if you stick to your guns, and reach that crucial 10%, your ideas eventually win out.

This is dumber than dumb, as is revealed in the very first comment to the post:

But what happens when 10 percent of a population holds one opinion, and another 10 percent hold the opposite view? Which one wins, and why?

Indeed. It reminds me of a puzzle book that I read when I was a kid. One of the puzzles was: What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? I thought and thought and couldn’t figure it out, so I flipped to the end of the book. The answer: It is not possible for an irresistible force and an immovable object to exist in the same universe, thus the question makes no sense.

By the way, this is a rare (perhaps) case in which the research was misrepresented not just by the journalist but by the researchers themselves. Here’s the very first sentence from the RPI press release:

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.

All right, then.

7 Comments

  1. jerzysblog says:

    Aha, but you see — if only they can convince 10% of scientists that this ridiculous conclusion is valid, then all other scientists will have no choice but to believe it too.

  2. RSA says:

    By the way, this is a rare (perhaps) case in which the research was misrepresented not just by the journalist but by the researchers themselves. Here’s the very first sentence from the RPI press release

    …assuming that the researchers wrote the press release. The paper reads a bit differently.

  3. Neil Bates says:

    Instead of just ridiculing that study, you should look at it. Sure, if another 10% has an unshakable view, then conflicting causality: but the assumption in such studies is a background "all other things equal" for simplicity (controlled experiment), so what they mean is, if 10% are that committed and not anyone else to that degree. They still might be wrong, but don't throw up a straw man against them. RPI is or last I knew, a distinguished even if not divine institution, I doubt they'd throw up rubbish.

    • RAS says:

      Good luck finding a real scenario in which "all other things equal" holds (especially in this context).

  4. andrewgelman says:

    RSA:

    No, that summary was on the researchers' own website, and the dumbest of all the lines was a direct quote from the researcher:

    “When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

    Neil:

    RPI, like many institutions (Columbia included) has good and bad research. And the study might be an interesting bit of computer science. Does it apply to real politics, as claimed by the researchers? I see no evidence of that. The dumb claims seem dumb to me, but maybe that's what it takes to get a headline. I'll mock what's mockable. If you don't want to be mocked, don't make mockable claims.

  5. Xamuel says:

    One of the biggest alarm bells is the nice round number. Ten percent? Really? How astonishing that this profound sociological constant happens to equal the number of our fingers!