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“Usefully skeptical science journalism”

Dean Eckles writes:

I like this Wired piece on the challenges of learning about how technologies are affecting us and children.

The journalist introducing a nice analogy (that he had in mind before talking with me — I’m briefly quoted) between the challenges in nutrition (and observational epidemiology more generally) and in studying “addictive” technologies.

He also gets how important it is to think about the magnitude of effects.

Perhaps an example of usefully skeptical science journalism? There are some little bits that aren’t quite right (“They need randomized controlled trials, to establish stronger correlations between the architecture of our interfaces and their impacts”) but that’s to be expected.

I have nothing to add except that I think it’s best to identify the author of the article, in this case it’s Robbie Gonzalez. Calling it a “Wired piece” doesn’t seem quite right. I wouldn’t like it if someone referred to one of my papers as “an article in the Journal of the American Statistical Association” without crediting me! This general issue has come up before; see for example the final paragraph in this post from 2006.


  1. True–that’s sort of like saying “A Harper’s Magazine poem from December 1920 reflects on the destructive potential of fire vs. ice.” I’ve probably done something like that with articles before, and I agree, it’s almost always best to identify the author. (Exceptions might include a newspaper editorial–where no author is listed–or a context in which I want to emphasize the newspaper itself. In that case, I would mention the author in parentheses or in a footnote/endnote.)

    • Rahul says:

      Does it have something to do with the credibility signaling?

      Sometimes the intermediary has a reliability signalling value and the ultimate author may be relatively unknown so a end reader cannot judge the imputed worth before reading the piece?

      • Yes, there’s that. Also, whose credibility and accuracy (or lack thereof) do I wish to emphasize? If I am referring to an opinion piece, creative work, or work that involves substantial analysis and interpretation, I usually emphasize the author (unless the publication matters for a particular reason, e.g., “Kudos to Harper’s for publishing ‘Fire and Ice'”). But when discussing “straight-up” reporting, I might emphasize the publication. (“According to the Washington Post, the most-visited branch of the Smithsonian in 2016 was the National Air and Space Museum.”) In that case, though, I would probably quote directly from the Smithsonian website, since that’s where the author got the data.

  2. I have been much more keen on the effects of television on people of any age. In a loose way, I suppose one can categorize ‘television’ as a technology. When I look back at lunch or dinner conversations with families of many backgrounds, in particular educated families, I am even more wary of what we have learned through schooling and social interactions is that purposefulness is to be measured by material success and prestige seeking.

    I think Neil Postman captured the cultural ethos of his times. The theme of his book, End of Education endures.

    Therefore an interesting lens through which to examine how technologies are affecting children. I would be more concerned, for example, with bullying, neglect, overweening pressures to be popular and do well in school, lack of mature adult guidance, and we can go on enumerating a host of other factors.

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