Junk ScienceNext time you read some anti-Kindle or anti-ebook headline trumpeting the results of the latest study or research held up to prove scientifically that e-reading is bad for you, take comfort: The probability is that it’s drivel.

The social sciences are quietly going through a credibility crisis. Recent research (and I know there’s an obvious paradox here, but we’ll come to that) has shown that 75 percent of social psychology experiments could not be replicated. For cognitive psychology, which ought after all to be even more experimentally grounded, the failure rate was still around 50 percent. And if that’s the kind of failure rate we’re looking at, what hope for broader realms of sociology, such as study of reading habits, or reading comprehension, etc?

Replicability is a fundamental basis of the scientific method. Experiments exist to prove a hypothesis. If your experiment doesn’t prove your hypothesis, then your hypothesis is junk. And since there are usually so many competing hypotheses out there, replicable experimental results are the basis of deciding which hypothesis is true or false. And from the pseudoscience of eugenics on, we’ve sought the prestige of science to justify our prejudices.

Sociology has long had a hard time establishing itself as a serious science. Émile Durkheim, father of the discipline, devoted himself to the “project of establishing sociology as a positivist social science.” Yet we’re now faced with evidence that between 50 percent and 75 percent of the published findings of such science exist on the same basis as flat-earthism or spiritualism.

Bear in mind, too, that these percentages are based on actual peer-reviewed scientific papers. How do you think those same percentages are likely to look when you run the numbers on the research that actually makes it into newspaper headlines? And note that junk science is now an actual recognized concept in law.

Admittedly, this may be more a consequence of modern academic culture than any real methodological crisis in the social sciences. As even one committed defense of psychological research admits, “with fierce competition for limited research funds and with millions of researchers struggling to make a living (publish, get grants, get promoted), we are under immense pressure to make ‘significant’, ‘innovative’ discoveries.” Or the kind that get into newspaper headlines. You’ll find the same anti-ebook research cited in article after article. But when’s the last time you read a newspaper headline claiming that research proves that ebooks are good for you? Could it be that researchers know that there’s no publicity value in it?

And I know that some anti-ebook Luddites could protest that I’m using research to disprove research, and this is just the pot calling the kettle black. Fine, if all research is suspect, go with common sense, or your own personal experience. If you find that e-reading on a tablet distracts you, go with paper instead. If it hurts your eyes, use a printed book – or an e-ink Kindle. But don’t run around looking for scientific validation for your moral panic. That puts you in the same league as the anti-Dungeons and Dragons scaremongers.





  1. Sociology has long had a hard time establishing itself as a serious science…Yet we’re now faced with evidence that between 50 percent and 75 percent of the published findings of such science exist on the same basis as flat-earthism or spiritualism.

    Years ago a sociologist published a study of a town which resulted in his being featured in effigy on top of a manure truck during that town’s Fourth of July parade. From my perspective that particular study was not so much manure as it was a fact-laden analysis which shocked that town’s self-image. [There were also some questions about the professional ethics of that study, which is another issue entirely.]

    Nonetheless, I found a subsequent publication of that sociologist where he made claims that were easily refuted by resort to well-documented sources. That is, he stated some things that just were not so: manure. I am not talking in this instance about interpretation, I am talking here about documented facts, about misstating things.

    So, the manure aspect of the “social sciences” has been around for quite a while.

    I suspect that it is worse nowadays than in days past, with the “publish or perish” ethos combined with an increase in ideological bias.

    When I hear “social scientists say,” I am reminded of the old Anacin ad which claimed that “Nine out of ten doctors prefer Anacin.”

  2. The jury is still out about print versus ebooks. My sense is that the difference will mostly disappear with well-done fixed-format ebooks on tablets but will prove quiet strong for reflowable text on smartphones. I’m not one of those who think light reflected differs from light shinning out. Both are just photons.

    Even as babies, humans have an instinct to remember locations.The same is true when I recall working with kids with leukemia years ago. I may forget other details, but I almost always recall the room. Take memory courses and you’ll find they suggest memory aids that often involve creating locations in your head. That is why, when we read, we often use location on a page as an aid to memory. We link what with where.

    Reflowable text, constantly changing its place on a device that’s identical for dozens of books gives use none of those clues. The formatting is typically hideous and the silly nonsense about letting the reader or app dictate what font is used removes even that slight memory aid.

    Smeared into an indistinguishable blog, our memory suffers. Ebooks could reduce that problem, but only if the formats allowed more complexity and more control of the layout than is currently permitted.

    –Mike Perry

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.