Political bias can yield spurious science
Have you heard the story of the scientist whose area of research was insects’ hearing? He trained a flea to jump on command. In the interest of his research, he pulled off one of the flea’s legs and ordered it to jump. The insect complied, if a bit clumsily because of its handicap. The scientist recorded the data — the delay in the jump, the distance covered, etc., on a chart. After a second amputation, the flea’s response to the command was even less impressive, and the new results were duly entered on the chart. After a third leg was removed, the flea’s jump was greatly compromised, and the chart became host to the new data. Finally, after being deprived of all of its legs, all the flea could do when ordered to jump was buzz about hopelessly on the table.
Solemnly, the scientist consulted his chart, created a formula to reflect his findings, and recorded his conclusion: “Fleas hear with their legs.”
The myopic researcher was brought to mind by a recent article about the work of two French economists, Ruben Durante and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. The piece, which appeared at MarketWatch, published by Dow Jones & Co., relates the pair’s investigation of the timing of Israeli military attacks against its enemies over an 11-year period. The economists’ methodology was simple (and rather simple-minded). They catalogued Israel’s military interventions from 2000 to 2011, and then compared them to what was going on in the news at the time — noting whether that news was “scheduled,” like a major sporting event, or “unscheduled,” like an earthquake or plane crash.
The scientists’ conclusion, in the synopsis of the MarketWatch article’s author, Brett Arends: “Israel habitually launches its most unpopular and, sometimes, deadly attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to coincide with big news events here in the U.S., so that they don’t get too much public attention.”
In Mr. Durante’s and Ms. Zhuravskaya’s own words: “Israeli attacks are more likely to occur prior to days with very high news pressure driven by clearly predictable events.” There were statistically significant upticks, they assert, in Israeli military action in the West Bank and Gaza Strip before sporting events, but not before things that the Israeli military could not anticipate.
So here, presumably, is the picture: Israel’s Prime Minister and top generals are huddled in the war room, analyzing a current threat against the citizenry. They pick apart intelligence data about enemy plans, track militants’ movements by aircraft and satellites, consult weather forecasts and, for nighttime operations, moon phases. And they decide that a strike is necessary. “No! Wait!” shouts the Prime Minster. “The Super Bowl’s not until next Sunday!”
A few minor problems here. First of all, did the researchers factor in the Final Four? And what about avoiding the attention of the rest of the world, which really doesn’t care much about American sports? Did the economists take soccer’s World Cup into account? Hockey’s Stanley Cup?
And if the Israeli military/political complex is in fact guilty of the nefarious machinations imagined by the economists, well, the plot doesn’t seem to have worked very well. When was the last time Israel launched an attack on her enemies and the world’s residents, glued to their sports event of choice, uh, didn’t notice?
Besides, don’t the Elders of Zion control earthquakes and plane crashes too?
Okay, that last argument was facetious. But no less so than the economists’ study, which proffered a wealth of charts and formulae to try to demonstrate a “statistically significant” correlation between attention-getting events and Israeli military action. How much of a correlation, though, and how much of it may just reflect chance or statistical static isn’t entirely clear. What is clear, though, is that cynicism, born of the stylish if smelly anti-Israel atmosphere these days, informed the study.
A mistaken conclusion about how a flea hears is a rather minor matter. An accusation of underhanded tactics hurled at a country trying to protect its citizens from murderous attacks, quite another.
The noted British psychologist, H. J. Eyesenck, famously observed that scientists can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.” It’s a truism that, in our understandable and usually merited respect for science, we can sometimes forget.
Scientists are people too; and if they harbor personal biases, their prejudices can inform their “science.” That’s not just unfortunate but, particularly today, downright dangerous.