A Scientist’s Behind-the-Scenes Look at FiveThirtyEight

Recently I decided to branch out and try my hand at writing an article for Nate Silver’s revamped FiveThirtyEight site, which espouses “data-driven journalism”. As a scientist, I was pretty excited about the idea of journalism using numbers more to support their articles and of increasing numerical literacy, more generally. And I was even more excited that they didn’t seem skittish about science.

There’s just such an opportunity at FiveThirtyEight (and other number-friendly sites)—an opportunity to be rigorous with data, to treat data with the respect it deserves, to acquaint the public with data-supported conclusions, and thus, in the long run, to help the public take a more scientific approach to the world.

I decided to write about Obama’s BRAIN initiative, and my article focused on putting the amount of money at stake in this initiative into the broader context of the amount of money in US biomedical research. (Summary: the BRAIN initiative isn’t getting enough money.)

My editor panned it.

Now, I can fully accept criticisms along the lines of “it’s too long-winded,” “the writing isn’t what we’re looking for,” “it’s too broad,” etc. When I’m feeling my most magnanimous, I’ll even accept an “it’s too biased.” But these weren’t the crux of her criticism. Instead, her major qualm was about the content: “Well, it’s just not that all that surprising. What we’re looking for are surprises. What’s the point of using data to show something that we already know is true?”*

Uh…pardon me?

Because this question ran counter to the very core of my being, all of which kept repeating, “Without data, how exactly do you know that something is true?”

Of course, what I’m trying to say is that my editor’s question ran counter to the idea of being a scientist.

We should not just accept something as fact without evidence. We should be able to defend our statements and ideas with data. Before we have the data? We may make models or have some speculations, but we should also be on the lookout—skeptical, cautious. And even once we have the data, we should still proceed carefully, rigorously, always continuing to examine and analyze and ask questions. We should be insatiable in our hunt for the truth.

In retrospect, I realize that this outlook probably makes me a poor journalist, but it’s what makes me a scientist through and through. And I also happen to think that our society would be well served to have more scientists in arenas other than science—in politics and journalism, especially.

So, let me be clear. This is what it means to be a scientist: irrespective of whether your conclusion is surprising or banal, the most important thing is that your conclusion is supported by data.

This is how to think like a scientist.


*An approximation of what she said to me.

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