Scientific Objectivity Tested by Fake TV News Story

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Filed under: Creative Activism

From Miso: “Now THAT’S a well done hoax!”


Hoax, Lies and Videotape
by RefractiveIndex
July 6, 2012

The fifth in our series on this year's group projects by Sci Com students – this week, it's the turn of Stephen McGann, Emma Houghton-Brown and Haralambos Dayantis.

Do scientists see the world as objectively as they like to think?

[Watch this hoax video & then read on]

Arguments have raged for years between those who regard science as an entirely objective discipline, and certain social scholars that believe science is subject to the same cognitive biases as every other human enterprise. At times, these debates have become less than polite.

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated an infamous academic hoax against a postmodernist journal called Social Text. Sokal submitted a paper for publication with the lavish title "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." It was filled with the kind of popular academic jargon familiar to postmodernist scholars. To the delight of the publishers, the eminent physicist seemed to be embracing a socially constructed view of his discipline. They duly published.

A month later, Sokal announced that his paper was a fake – a stitched-together collection of nonsense to demonstrate the lack of intellectual rigour amongst postmodernists. The journal editors were furious, accusing Sokal of a lack of ethics. Many scientists were delighted. The affair became a major episode in what is now dubbed the ‘Science Wars.'

We became interested in Sokal's particular objectives for the hoax. He claimed it was an ‘experiment' to test whether editors would ‘publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions.'

This gave us a mischievous idea. What would happen if we took Sokal's broad premise and turned it around onto scientists? Could we make scientists believe a hoax TV news story because it (a) employed familiar TV conventions and (b) it presented a flattering narrative of a lone scientist battling corrupt authority?

We set about constructing a four-minute TV news item about a visiting Japanese scientist called Shigeyuki Kagoshima, whose important climate-saving research had been thwarted by a cynical Chinese corporation. We studied science news clips on television to mimic common devices such as lab presentations and interview conventions. We presented our film to science undergraduates at Imperial College as a genuine news piece – and tested whether our audience could detect the content as fake. Finally, we revealed our hoax – and asked them for their reactions.

The piece was shot by professional filmmaker Mark McGann of Drama Direct. Practically all elements are fictional – the Chinese company does not exist, and Dr Kagoshima is played with wonderful authenticity by Shigeyuki Koide, the former science editor of Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. In fact, the only real scientist was physics professor Jenny Nelson. But would the science audience be able to tell what was real and what wasn't?

Read the rest of this article here.