28. May 2011 · 4 comments · Categories: psychology

This xkcd cartoon made me laugh out loud, because it beautifully captures my attitude towards sports. The mouse-over comment on xkcd points out that it applies to financial analysis too, and (more directly), Dungeons and Dragons:

But then I got thinking. Huge numbers of people are fascinated by the narratives that these commentators produce. There’s something compelling about declaring allegiance to one of the weighted random number generators (sports teams, stock picks, etc), selecting which of the narratives to believe based on that allegiance, and then hoping for (and perhaps betting on) which numbers it will produce. Sometimes the numbers turn out the way you’d hoped, and sometimes they don’t, but either way people prefer to believe in the narratives, rather than acknowledge the randomness. There’s a thrill to the process, but at the same time, a strong sense that everyone else’s narratives are delusional.

What if that’s how most people view science? What if they think that scientists are no different from sports commentators and financial analysts, sounding knowledgeable, but mostly just making up explanations based on wishful thinking? What if people believe that scientists’ explanations are just as unreliable as those of sports commentators, and that therefore you can pick what to believe based on tribal affiliations, rather than on, say, the weight of evidence?

Certainly, that’s how many non-scientist commentators approach climate science. Each new paper published is like a new game outcome. The IPCC team may have won a lot of games in the past, put it’s very unpopular among some groups of fans. Results that suggest some other teams are on the rise can be spun into fabulous narratives about how the IPCC team is past its prime, and cruising towards a big upset.

For those who have no idea what science does, the caption for the cartoon might just as well read “All climate science”.


  1. Good insight. A related analogy that I like to use is that to the non scientifically educated, science is just another story unfolding like a novel or television show (i.e. a narrative) and as so many such stories have “plot holes” or other logical failings, they think science can change as quickly as a character can develop amnesia or wake up from a dream. Whereas, the proper analogy for science is not that it’s a narrative – it’s a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces have to fit. When 100 pieces fit, and one doesn’t, then one is looking at the single piece incorrectly, not the 100. Etc.

  2. Hm. The one hundred pieces that fit… that’s normal science. But that one piece that doesn’t? Now *that’s* interesting.

  3. Absolutely the one that doesn’t fit is *interesting*, but it’s very unlikely to cause you to toss out the hundred that fit. To strain the analogy, the exact shape of each piece is experimentally determined, so we have mis-measured the new piece, or mismeasured the outside edges of some of the 100 that fit. With a little more effort, we’ll figure it out. But the way the 100 already fit won’t really change.

  4. A 2 degree forcing at shortstop yields 350 averages?

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