Next 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.