incentives

Spin city: why improving collective epistemology matters

The gene for internet addiction has been found! Well, actually it turns out that 27% of internet addicts have the genetic variant, compared to 17% of non-addicts. The Encode project has overturned the theory of ‘junk DNA‘! Well, actually we already knew that that DNA was doing things long before, and the definition of ‘function’ used is iffy. Alzheimer’s disease is a new ‘type 3 diabetes‘! Except that no diabetes researchers believe it. Sensationalist reporting of science is everywhere, distorting public understanding of what science has discovered and its relative importance. If media ought to try to give a full picture of the situation, they seem to be failing.

But before we start blaming science journalists, maybe we should look sharply at the scientists. A new study shows that 47% of press releases about controlled trials contained spin, emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment. This carried over to subsequent news stories, often copying the original spin. Maybe we could try blaming university press officers, but the study found spin in 41% of the abstracts of the papers too, typically overestimating the benefit of the intervention or downplaying risks. The only way of actually finding out the real story is to read the content of the paper, something requiring a bit of skill – and quite often paying for access.

Who to blame, and what to do about it?

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The Ethics of Gamification: Little Rewards for Everything

[note: the original version of this post contained some interactive code, which has been removed from the archives]

Notice that the first word of this post is red. Point your mouse cursor at the words as you read them, and each subsequent word will turn red as you read. You are now being graded on how quickly you read these words. And there’s a little visual reward in store for anyone who reads the first paragraph quickly. Now look to the right of this post, where it says ‘Top Posts’. One of the reasons we have that is to help readers to find the most popular posts on the blog. But another reason we have it is so that our contributors will be motivated to write more interesting and thought-provoking commentaries for the site. It is a high score table, and the winner is the philosopher with the most interesting post.

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