TV Hosts: Shut Up and Let the Scientist Speak

Stephen Colbert recently parodied TV hosts by telling his expert guest from Yale University, "We'll eventually get back to you talking too," exposing a fundamental flaw in American media: when TV hosts interview experts, the hosts do all the talking. This means actual expertise does not get airtime.

The point of bringing experts on a TV show should be to decrease bias, promote learning, and present (relatively) impartial, well-thought out ideas. However, the news media has defiled the role of the expert and commonly uses the expert to bolster bias rather than decrease it.

America is missing out on a great resource: the responsible communication of science and expertise to the general public.

On modern TV shows, the expert guests can rarely get three sentences into a statement without the host derailing the conversation. Experts should be allowed the time to make their point and given at least a few minutes to teach the audience something new. Unfortunately, hosts and some audiences do not want to be taught: instead they want affirmation of their beliefs, political parties, and ideologies.

Watching cable news media often feels more like going to a closed-minded church service than going to an impartial political 101 class. Uniform audiences tune in and joyfully praise a single ideology. Occasionally, an inconsistent idea (e.g. from a guest expert) is entertained, but the idea is immediately turned into a straw man and easily torn down by the host -- often to the applause and joy of the audience.

Stanford University Professor Claude Steele and colleagues have shown just how powerfully comforting the act of affirming one's values can be. In The Political Brain, author Drew Westen argued that political beliefs can even become an addictive source of pleasure. So it's no wonder people often crave such brainwashed anti-science entertainment.

All this contributes to a sad state of affairs where good science is pushed out of the public eye. The United States of America has the best universities in the world and, accordingly, the best knowledge. Unfortunately, this knowledge often gets suppressed, filtered, or biased by the current American media climate. Good knowledge occasionally breaks through in popular books and video clips, but quality science is not consumed on a regular basis by average Americans who do not independently seek it out. The end result: the scientific mindset and method is underappreciated.

However, this sad state of affairs is not seen everywhere. Other countries with less partisan media (e.g. the United Kingdom) embrace science and even put it front and center (e.g. BBC's Christmas Lectures). In some parts of the United States as well, people invite others to challenge their worldview. There is a lust for learning that breaks through when scientists voluntarily attend talks that challenge their own current opinions; when some of my Mormon and Presbyterian friends take time to learn about each others' religions; or when Daily Show host John Stewart acknowledges the merits of a conservative guest's argument.

In his bestselling book, The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver talks about the problem of not wanting to think or what psychologists call the "need for cognitive closure." Silver talks about the difference between what professor Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania calls a "fox", a person who considers many ideas, possibilities, philosophies, etc., and a "hedgehog," a person who considers (often blissfully) only one idea. When experts get quality time on TV they force us to think about more ideas and become more fox-like. A hedgehog American public that follows single-minded voices will not lead us to a healthy future. However, a "foxy" American public will fare much better.

So TV hosts, please shut up and let the guests talk. Stop debating with experts before the experts have a chance to share their data. Debates without data are usually useless. So please TV hosts, and much of America, let the science in.