Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Ballad of Harald and Jørgen

When I was a kid, I read Superman comics up until the point where I found Marvel to be a much better, if not more realistic, purveyor of superhero tales. Much of the premise of the Superman comic depended on the Man of Steel's ability to uphold his "secret" Clark Kent identity. Even for a seven year old kid, this required more suspension of disbelief than I was willing to put up with. While tons of Marvel characters relied on the same premise, Spiderman at least wore a mask. With Superman, a pair of ordinary reading glasses was all that kept his peers from recognizing that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same. Take this fact and add that Clark Kent was never seen together with Superman yet claimed to be his close friend, and it's pretty obvious that the journalistic talent and investigative qualities of the staff at whatever newspaper Kent worked at sucked worse than a toothless vampire.

Still, Jimmy Olsen might have claimed that Superman at least put on a pair of spectacles to conceal his true identity. In my book, that puts him one notch over the soft science schnucks currently lamenting how Harald Eia and the TV series "Hjernevask" make them look bad by showing viewers parts of interviews where the "scientists" are "tricked" into giving pretty much the exact same quotes as they have given in earlier interviews. Moreover, they agreed to appear on the show under the premise that it would be science journalism involved, and thus a serious show wherein they would bask in the glory of their doctorates in what asymptotically approaches science from below.

When the program was announced, some of the interviewees already started their public outcry of having been misled - some six months before the show was supposed to air. Not having seen any of the episodes, but having seen the teasers and followed the subsequent debates in other media, this still struck me as odd. From what I've seen in the teasers - which mirrors what I've read in the ensuing debates - an episode goes a li'l something like this:


  • Eia inerviews some Norwegian "scientist" and appears to ask some critical question.
  • Norwegian "scientist" inevitably provides aa absolute, definitive answer for which he or she has no scientific basis.
  • Eia appears sceptical.
  • Eia asks some foreign (preferably American) scientists the same question and presents them with the comments from the Norwegian soft-science schnuck.
  • Foreign scientist give a different answer, invariably in less bombastic and absolute terms than the Norwegian "scientists"
  • Eia nods in approval like a bobblehead doll in a car with bad suspension during an earthquake.
  • Repeat ad nauseam with different topic.

There's no doubt that Eia appears to be severely biased in his interviews, so that does warrant a fair deal of criticism. Favoritism aside, here's what I really don't get. Harald Eia is a very talented comedian, and has parlayed this into national celebrity and probably significant wealth. Eia's style of comedy can hardly be characterized as sophisticated, and to my knowledge, he has never displayed any public interest in science journalism until this show. Moreover, I notice from the teasers as well as from the ensuing public debate that Eia does the interviews himself, without any form of disguise. Not even a pair of glasses. This means that one out of two scenarios must have taken place prior to the interviews:

Scenario 1: Soft-science schnuck is contacted by Eia directly.
SSS: Yello?
Eia: Hello - this is Harald Eia calling. You might remember me as a TV-comedian famous for showing his private parts on television, for making fun of people from other parts of Norway than himself, and for having skits wherein dogs lick various food items off of Kristoffer Schau's balls. I'm currently working on a science journalism project where I endeavour to elucidate different aspects of human behavior based on nature versus nurture. Would you be interested in appearing on such a program to talk about things pertaining to your research?
SSS: So I'll be on TV, right?
Eia: You most certainly will.
SSS: Sign me up.

Scenario 2: Soft-science schnuck is contacted by some staffer assigned to Eia:
SSS: Yello?
Staffer: Hello there. My name is of no consequence and I am calling because NrK is planning a TV series based on the premise of elucidating different aspects of human behavior and determining whether certain traits can be more strongly linked to nature or to nurture. Being that you have been a vocal proponent for nurture over nature, that you have published several articles on the subject and that you own a sports jacket, we'd like to interview you for the program.
SSS: Who's gonna be doing the interview?
Staffer: Harald Eia.
SSS: The TV comedian famous for showing his private parts on television, for making fun of people with a different dialect than himself and for having skits wherein dogs lick various food items off of Kristoffer Schau's balls?
Staffer: That'd be the one.
SSS: Would I have to lick anything off of Schau's balls to be on TV? I'm allergic to nuts..
Staffer: You'll only be required to give an interview where you repeat the exact same inane statements you have gone on record giving earlier.
SSS: Sign me up.

So assuming the soft-science schnucks weren't contacted under the premise of making a science journalism spoof, where's the deception? At the end of the day, unless the interviews were edited to the level where words from different parts of the interview were combined to form quotes the interviewee never intended to give, they need to STFU. If they really thought that a program designed and executed by Harald Eia would be an unbiased piece of BBC-like science journalism, I've got a piece of land with a tower on it in central Paris to sell them real cheap.

Of all the soft-science schnucks getting their undies in a bunch over the resluting TV show, none have appeared more indignant than one Jørgen Lorentzen. Lorentzen appeared in a televised debate Thursday the 18th of March and claimed that the interview contained lots of footage of him putting over biology and biologists left and right, only that dastardly Eia cut those parts out, leaving him looking like a government-sponsored moron. He luv'd him sum biologists, but he also knew for a fact that the foreign expert Eia had used to counter his eloquent arguments in favor of nurture had done some critical error in his experiment design, thus invalidating the studies and any conclusions derived from it. Eia had actually done his homework and upon asking Lorentzen to state the flaws in the study, was able to counter and negate the two or three points made by Lorentzen. Following this, Lorentzen sulked and argued "well; there were several other critical flaws" before the host mercifully ended Lorentzen's self-burial. Moreover, the statements Lorentzen deemed to have been taken out of context, i.e., not being shown following Lorentzen putting over biology, were shown to have been given in earlier interviews with Lorentzen, where he apparently had no problems with Dagens Næringsliv printing such quotes. Or maybe the problem was that DN never put his quotes next to counterarguments by other experts, and so he only appeared to be caught in a cul-de-sac of his own self-righteousness. On Hjernevask, however, he appeared arrogant AND clueless. Not to mention that he got owned in a debate in a subject where he clearly considers himself an expert...by Harald Eia.

While I'm not saying that all the Norwegian soft-science schnucks interviewed by Eia only to have all kinds of issues later are idiots, there's no question that the quotes from the foreign scientists come across as more level-headed. This was especially clear for the Norwegian "expert" and waste of human flesh that on a direct question from Eia answered that each individual was free to choose his or her sexuality.

Tell that to a teenager from a strict religious background in rural Norway who would have to break any ties to family and friends and endure bullying and ridicule from peers if he or she chooses to come out of the closet.

11 comments:

Anders said...

I'm not very keen on nuts myself... ;)

I've seen all the episodes, and do have some thoughts.

- First, it isn't a "foreign Vs Norwegian" research thing. There are several Norwegian researchers on the "biology" side featured on the show (Leif Edward Ottosen Kennair from NTNU is one).

- The Hjernevask shows are more light entertainment, where Eia "tricks" some SSS to repeat some previous statement they are famous for (Lorentzen called Kennair a biofacist in a radio debate). The real interesting bit here, are the debate you've refereed to and media coverage following the show.

What sort of shocked me, is how unrelated formal background some of these "researchers" have. Lorentzen do gender research, and have a PhD in literature, more specific about the male figure in Hamsun, Strindberg and Garborg. Yes, literature will tell us something about the gender view at the time of writing, but zip and nada whether these differences are nature or nurture. Cathrine Egeland has a PhD in gender research, specificly in the differences between the genders in academia. While this certainly is relevant in gender reserach, it doesn't sound like she's heavy in the genetics department. Though I would think that she is formally trained in statistics, which is highly relevant. However, when it comes to Egeland, she is clearly not very trained in TV appearances, and is thus no match for Eia with his vast background from TV and theatre.

The point is, in articles written by the researchers and in TV debates, the "nurture" side of the debate really shows a lack of understanding of basic biology/ genetics and statistics. That's scary when you do research in a field where you can't rule out genetics apriori, but rather have to show that it's effect is minor if you're going to neglect genes. None of the SSS can show any research that backs up this claim. In fact, the common misunderstand is that if you have gene, you're determined to follow the gene, no exception, no matter how complex the issue (Luckily then, that Jens Stoltenberg have the Prime Minister gene). Also, it is a complete lack of statistics and how interpret data. Personally, I claim to have the body of a pro bodybuilder and have the BMI data to back it up with!

It's also scary how much impact these SSS have had (and still have?) on politics. But that's another issue.

Wilhelm said...

Leif Edward is on one of them shows? Maybe they're worth watching after all?

Egeland wasn't really attecked by Eia in the televised debate though. She actually pulled a mea culpa, whereas Lorentzen mostly sat and fumed/pouted like a five-year old.

Yeah; the inability to rule out nurture a priori and then having to invent reasons why it's not applicable is one of the many reasons why some branches of academia don't qualify as science. If you've made up your mind about a major part of the conclusions before you embark on the actual data collection and analysis, you might as well go work for Phillip Morris or try to prove that humans walked alongside dinosaurs 15 years ago or whatever creationists claim.

I see why SSS are often used in media though...

Anders said...

Yes, NTNU-Laffen was featured in the first episode. As was a psychiatrist from Rikshospitalet, which name escapes me. The frist and third episodes are the ones to watch so far. That is, the ones with highest entertainment value, where f.x. Eia makes a SSS qoute the experience of herself and her mates as a scientifc research. :D

They are up on the NrK website for free online streaming.

Anders said...

Interesting article: http://www.dagbladet.no/2010/03/23/kultur/debatt/kronikk/hjernevask/10967639/
I thought about doing the same myself, but they beat me to it. And I do think they are way more competent then me, since my biology background is pretty much limited to sneaking into biology parties at the University. :D
(Though I've actually read some of Kinsey, which appreantly is more then the "gender expert" Lorentzen).

Wilhelm said...

They hit me with a 404 on teh link, so no es bueno.

I'll check out the first and third episodes, then.

Anders said...

Try this. For some reason blogspot or internet explorer seem to cut the last part of the link. Works fine on my cell phone.

Wilhelm said...

:-D

Stuff of legend. I gathered from the "debate" that Lorentzen's powers of deduction were somewhat limited, but this exceeds my expectations by a significant factor

Anders said...

Yes. I'm tempted to read that article in it's full glory. :D
Not having access to journals from here, but I see that he has an impressing number of citations. Wonder if these are "positive" or "negative" citations.

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