Ours is a society that generally respects and believes its scientists. Science is one of
the fundamental reasons why we enjoy our admirable standard of living and have
a growing understanding of the world around us. But not all scientists are revered
equally. British astronomer and philosopher John D. Barrow opened his 1998
book, Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits, with this observation
on the value of science and its practitioners:
Bookshelves are stuffed with volumes that expound the successes of the mind and the
silicon chip. We expect science to tell us what can be done and what is to be done.
Governments look to scientists to improve the quality of life and safeguard us from
earlier “improvements.” Futurologists see no limit to human inquiry, while social
scientists see no end to the raft of problems it spawns. (p. 1)
The physical scientists and engineers are the dreamers, the fixers, the guardians.
They have sent us photos of stars aborning, detailed the inner workings of
the atom, and invented the microwave oven, the World Wide Web, and cell phones
that take and send video. Social scientists are the naysayers, the Grinches of the
world. They tell us that television corrupts our morals, political campaigns render
us too cynical to participate meaningfully in our democracy, and parents rely too
heavily on television to babysit their kids. Or, as columnist David Brooks reminds
us, “A survey of the social science of the past century shows it to be, by and large,
an insanely pessimistic field” (2002, p. 22). We tend to readily accept most of the
good findings of Barrow’s scientists. The universe is continually expanding? Of
course. The existence of quarks? Naturally. At the same time, we tend to be more
suspicious of the findings of the social scientists. Playing with Barbies destroys little
girls’ self-esteem? I don’t think so! Videogames teach violence? That’s so Twentieth
Century! Texting kills spelling and grammar? OMG! U r wrng. LOL!
Why does our society seem to have greater difficulty accepting the theories
and findings of social scientists, those who apply logic and observation—that is,
science—to the understanding of the social world, rather than the physical world?
Why do we have more trust in the people who wield telescopes and microscopes
to probe the breadth of the universe and the depth of human cells but skepticism
about the tools used by social observers to probe the breadth of culture or the
depth of human experience?
At the center of our society’s occasional reluctance to accept the theories of the
social scientists is the logic of causality. We readily understand this logic. You’ve
no doubt had it explained to you during a high school physics or chemistry class,
so we’ll use a simple example from those classes: boiling water. If we (or our representatives,
the scientists) can manipulate an independent variable (heat) and produce
the same effect (boiling at 100 degrees centigrade) under the same conditions
(sea level) every time, then a causal relationship has been established. Heating
water at sea level to 100 degrees will cause water to boil. No matter how many
times you heat beakers of water at sea level, they will all boil at 100 degrees.
Lower the heat; the water does not boil. Heat it at the top of Mount Everest; it
boils at lower temperatures. Go back to sea level (or alter the atmospheric pressure
in a laboratory test); it boils at 100 degrees. This is repeated observation under
controlled conditions. We even have a name for this, the scientific method, and
there are many definitions for it. Here is a small sample:
1. “A means whereby insight into an undiscovered truth is sought by (1) identifying
the problem that defines the goal of the quest, (2) gathering data with
the hope of resolving the problem, (3) positing a hypothesis both as a logical
means of locating the data and as an aid to resolving the problem, and (4)
empirically testing the hypothesis by processing and interpreting the data to
see whether the interpretation of them will resolve the question that initiated
the research” (Leedy, 1997, pp. 94–95).
2. “A set of interrelated constructs (concepts), definitions, and propositions that
present a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables,
with the purpose of explaining and predicting phenomena” (Kerlinger,
1986, p. 9).
3. “A method … by which our beliefs may be determined by nothing human, but
by some external permanency—by something upon which our thinking has no
effect…. The method must be such that the ultimate conclusion of every man
[sic] shall be the same. Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis
… is this: There are real things whose characters are entirely independent
of our opinions about them” (Peirce, 1955, p. 18).
Throughout the last century and into this one, some social researchers have
tried to apply the scientific method to the study of human behavior and society.
As you’ll soon see, an Austrian immigrant to the United States, Paul Lazarsfeld,
was an important advocate of applying social research methods to the study of
mass media. But although the essential logic of the scientific method is quite simple,
its application in the social (rather than physical) world can be more complicated.
Take, for example, the much-discussed issue of press coverage of political campaigns
and its impact on voter turnout. We know that more media attention is paid
to elections than ever before. Today, television permits continual eyewitness coverage
of candidate activity. Mobile vans trail candidates and beam stories off satellites
so that local television stations can air their own coverage. The Internet and
Web offer instant access to candidates, their ideas, and those of their opponents.
Twitter lets us track their every move in real time. Yet, despite advances in media
technology and innovations in campaign coverage, voter participation in the United
States remains low. Not since 1968 has turnout in a presidential election exceeded 60 percent. Even in the 2008 race between Barack Obama and John McCain, considered
“the most technologically innovative, entrepreneurially driven campaign in
American political history,” only 56.8 percent of registered voters cast ballots
(Dickinson, 2009; U.S. Election Project, 2009). Should we assume that media campaign
coverage suppresses potential voter turnout? This is an assertion that some
mass communication observers might be quick to make. But would they be right?
How could or should we verify whether this assertion is valid?
As we shall see, the pioneers of mass communication research faced this situation
during the 1930s. There were precious few scientific studies of, but many bold
assertions about, the bad effects of mass media. A small number of social scientists
began to argue that these claims should not be accepted before making empirical
observations that could either support them or permit them to be rejected. While
these early researchers often shared the widely held view that media were powerful,
they believed that the scientific method might be used to harness this power to
avoid negative effects like juvenile delinquency and produce positive effects such as
promoting Americans’ trust in their own democratic political system while subverting
the appeal of totalitarian propaganda. In this way, scientific research would
allow media to be a force for good in shaping the social world.
These researchers faced many problems, however, in applying the scientific
method to the study of mass communication. How can there be repeated observations?
No two audiences, never mind any two individuals, who see political
coverage are the same. No two elections are the same. Even if a scientist conducted
the same experiment on the same people repeatedly (showing them, for example,
the same excerpts of coverage and then asking them if and how they might vote),
these people would now be different each additional time because they would
have had a new set of experiences (participation in the study).
How can there be control over conditions that might influence observed
effects? Who can control what people watch, read, or listen to, or to whom
they talk, not to mention what they have learned about voting and civic responsibility
in their school, family, and church? One solution is to put them in a laboratory
and limit what they watch and learn. But people don’t grow up in laboratories
or watch television with the types of strangers they meet in a laboratory experiment.
They don’t consume media messages hooked to galvanic skin response devices
or scanned by machines that track their eye movements. And unlike atoms
under study, people can and sometimes do change their behaviors as a result of
the social scientists’ findings, which further confounds claims of causality. And
there is another problem. Powerful media effects rarely happen as a result of exposure
to a few messages in a short amount of time. Effects take place slowly, over
long periods of time. At any moment, nothing may seem to be happening.
This implementation of the scientific method is difficult for those studying the
social world for four reasons:
1. Most of the significant and interesting forms of human behavior are quite
difficult to measure. We can easily measure the temperature at which water boils.
With ingenious and complex technology, we can even measure the weight of an
atom or the speed at which the universe is expanding. But how do we measure
something like civic duty? Should we count the incidence of voting? Maybe a person’s
decision not to vote is her personal expression of that duty. Try something a little easier, like measuring aggression in a television violence study. Can aggression
be measured by counting how many times a child hits a rubber doll? Is gossiping
about a neighbor an aggressive act? How do we measure an attitude (a
predisposition to do something rather than an observable action)? What is three
pounds of tendency to hold conservative political views or sixteen point seven
millimeters of patriotism?
2. Human behavior is exceedingly complex. Human behavior does not easily
lend itself to causal description. It is easy to identify a single factor that causes water
to boil. But it has proved impossible to isolate single factors that serve as the
exclusive cause of important actions of human behavior. Human behavior may
simply be too complex to allow scientists to ever fully untangle the different factors
that combine to cause observable actions. We can easily control the heat and
atmospheric pressure in our boiling experiment. We can control the elements in a
chemistry experiment with relative ease. But if we want to develop a theory of the
influence of mediated communication on political campaigns, how do we control
which forms of media people choose to use? How do we control the amount of attention
they pay to specific types of news? How do we measure how well or
poorly they comprehend what they consume? How do we take into account factors
that influenced people long before we started our research? For example,
how do we measure the type and amount of political socialization produced by
parents, schools, or peers? All these things (not to mention countless others) will
influence the relationship between people’s use of media and their behavior in an
election. How can we be sure what caused what? Voting might have declined
even more precipitously without media coverage. Remember, the very same factors
that lead one person to vote might lead another to stay home.
3. Humans have goals and are self-reflexive. We do not always behave in response
to something that has happened; very often we act in response to something
we hope or expect will happen. Moreover, we constantly revise our goals
and make highly subjective determinations about their potential for success or failure.
Water boils after the application of heat. It doesn’t think about boiling. It
doesn’t begin to experience boiling and then decide that it doesn’t like the experience.
We think about our actions and inactions; we reflect on our values, beliefs,
and attitudes. Water doesn’t develop attitudes against boiling that lead it to misperceive
the amount of heat it is experiencing. It stops boiling when the heat is removed.
It doesn’t think about stopping or have trouble making up its mind. It
doesn’t have friends who tell it that boiling is fun and should be continued even
when there is insufficient heat. But people do think about their actions, and they
frequently make these actions contingent on their expectations that something will
happen. “Humans are not like billiard balls propelled solely by forces external to
them,” explained cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura. “Billiard balls cannot
change the shape of the table, the size of the pockets, or intervene in the paths
they take, or even decide whether to play the game at all. In contrast, humans not
only think, but, individually and collectively, shape the form those external forces
take and even determine whether or not they come into play. Murray Gell-Mann,
the physicist Nobelist, underscored the influential role of the personal determinants
when he remarked, ‘Imagine how hard physics would be if particles could think’”
(2008, pp. 95–96).
4. The simple notion of causality is sometimes troubling when it is applied to
ourselves. We have no trouble accepting that heat causes water to boil at 100 degrees
centigrade at sea level; we relish such causal statements in the physical world.
We want to know how things work, what makes things happen. As much as we
might like to be thrilled by horror movies or science fiction films in which physical
laws are continually violated, we trust the operation of these laws in our daily
lives. But we often resent causal statements when they are applied to ourselves.
We can’t see the expanding universe or the breakup of the water molecule at the
boiling point, so we are willing to accept the next best thing, the word of an objective
expert, that is, a scientist. But we can see ourselves watching cable news and
not voting and going to a movie and choosing a brand-name pair of slacks and
learning about people from lands we’ve never visited. Why do we need experts telling
us about ourselves or explaining to us why we do things? We’re not so easily
influenced by media, we say. But ironically, most of us are convinced that other
people are much more likely to be influenced by media (the third-person effect).
So although we don’t need to be protected from media influence, others might;
they’re not as smart as we are (Grier and Brumbaugh, 2007). We are our own
men and women—independent, freethinking individuals. We weren’t affected by
those McDonald’s ads; we simply bought that Big Mac, fries, and a large Coke because,
darn it, we deserved a break today. And after all, we did need to eat something
and the McDonald’s did happen to be right on the way back to the dorm.