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Dog Bites Dog Story

Interpreting a collection of observations is a science in itself



MATT COLLINS

There are experimental sciences, and then there are historical and observational sciences. The experimental sciences, like chemistry and physics, are easy to spot. When stuff blows up or systems don’t work right, you’ve got yourself an experiment.

Historical and observational sciences can be a little tougher to get a handle on. The researchers in these fields must adopt the Yogi Berra stance—“You can observe a lot just by watching”—and then interpret reality. Or, as the great scientist Ernst Mayr patiently explained in these pages, “Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science—the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place.… One constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.”

Consumer behavior may be considered to be, at times, a historical/observational science. For example, in his 1997 Quirks.com article called “Seven Rules for Observational Research: How to Watch People Do Stuff,” Walt Dickie describes his field studies: “I once spent a week watching people nod off waiting for their cars to be repaired. I was Jane Goodall and they were the chimps.” (Turns out the chimps mostly just wanted their cars to be serviced faster and were barely amused by the magazines and newspapers in the cage—er, customer lounge.)

Other historical sciences include crime scene investigation, geology and the interpretation of baseball box scores. All require the construction of narratives after the compilation of facts. More from Ernst:
 “The testing of historical narratives implies that the wide gap between science and the humanities that so troubled physicist C. P. Snow is actually nonexistent.”

So we may discuss journalism as a semi­science, in which a reporter gathers facts and then constructs one or more possible narratives to explain those facts. Alternative narratives then fight it out, and the most parsimonious wins. Sometimes.

Consider this story, reported by the Associated Press in early May, carrying the headline “Tiny Terrier Saved Kids from Pit Bulls.” The story, filed from Wellington, New Zealand, includes these details:
“A plucky Jack Russell terrier named George saved five children from two marauding pit bulls.... George was playing with the group of children as they returned home from buying sweets.” So far we have an anthropomorphized terrier—plucky, and he was playing with them, mind you—and the Little Rascals returning from the candy store, when:

"Two pit bulls appeared and lunged toward them.” Next comes a quote from one of the kids, an 11-year-old animal behaviorist: “‘George tried to protect us by barking and rushing at them, but they started to bite him.’” Note that she goes beyond description to narrative herself—George’s primary interest was her safety. Now comes the resolution of the situation, according to the 11-year-old: “‘We ran off crying, and some people saw what was happening and rescued George.’”

The headline and the article thus conspire to portray a brave little dog that tried to rescue human children. And that may indeed be what happened. Based solely on the facts reported in this piece, however, we may construct a somewhat different narrative. The pit bulls appeared and moved in on the group; the terrier rushed at them; the pit bulls focused their attention on the terrier; the kids ran away. In other words, the same reported facts could have led to a story that carried the headline “Five Frightened Kids Flee as Tiny Dog Is Attacked.”

While lacking the heartwarming character of the published account, this version might have the virtue of being true. And while the journalist has a sciencelike task in interpreting objective reality, the news consumer has a related responsibility to evaluate the narrative. It’s like your own forensics investigation! After which you can say, perhaps even accurately, “Mission Accomplished.”

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