Science and the Three Little Pigs

What can characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales teach us about the relationship between science and the media? Why should the three little pigs be happy when the big bad wolf blows their houses down? And why should Goldilocks think hard about her options before choosing the right porridge?

(This article was originally published at Scienceray.com on 28 January 2011.)

The results of scientific research as reported in the media can often seem a little confusing. How many times have we read in the press that product X is good for us only to read the opposite opinion sometime later? How can the same set of results give rise to different views of its meaning? Is there something wrong with the science or the way it is reported?

To help us understand these problems I want to explain them with the help of an analogy, and I can think of no better subject matter to use for this purpose than something we are all familiar with – nursery rhymes and fairy tales. With the help of three little pigs, a big bad wolf and a selection of other characters the mysterious world of scientific research and reporting will be revealed.

A House of Straw

The Big Bad Wolf Blows Down the Straw House by L Leslie Brooke

The Big Bad Wolf Blows Down the Straw House by L Leslie Brooke

Science starts with an idea, and that idea is often wrong. Just because an idea is wrong, however, does not mean it has no merit. To begin our analogy let us take the three little pigs to represent our scientists. The first little pig is tired of living in a sty and has the idea of building himself a house. The house represents a scientific theory.

The problem is that no pig has built a house before and only the idea exists. Undeterred, the pig constructs his house and chooses straw as his building material. The final result is a structure that looks like a house and provides good shelter, but will it stand up or fall down? In other words, is the scientific theory correct?

The Big Bad Wolf

To test a scientific theory in the real world an experiment is required, and its design is crucial. A good scientific experiment is not designed to prove a theory; a good scientific experiment is designed to try to find the flaws in a theory in order to help improve it. So in order for our first little pig to test his house he must try to destroy it.

Enter the big bad wolf. Here he will represent the experiment and its results. As this first house is made of straw, the wolf will huff and puff and the house will fall down. (To be thorough, the wolf will blow down several straw houses and take averages of his results in order to discount any extreme results.)

Houses of Sticks and Bricks

Obviously, as the wolf blew down the first little pig’s house, our experiment has shown that a house made of straw is not stable, i.e. our scientific theory is wrong. After a setback like this will the scientific/pig community give up? No, there is a lot to learn about a scientific theory from a failed experiment.

For instance, the first little pig’s house collapsed because it was made of straw, but its structure was good. The second little pig sees that the walls of the house kept the first little pig warm and the roof kept off the rain and so builds a new house of the same design but using sticks as his material. So, everything that was good about the first house provides the foundations of the second, i.e. a new scientific theory grows not as a completely new idea but from remains of the original.

The second little pig’s house must now be tested and so the big bad wolf huffs and puffs and the house of sticks falls down. Again, the lessons learnt from the destruction of the second little pig’s house help in the construction of a third, and so a cycle of theory/experiment/new theory (or house/wolf/new house) ensues.

Eventually, a house of bricks may be built by a third little pig (or 10th/50th/100th little pig) that is stable enough to live in. In other words, we may arrive at a scientific theory that adequately describes the phenomenon we are investigating. As with a house of bricks, this theory could still be improved upon and so the experiment cycle may not end there.

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood by Felix Summerly

Little Red Riding Hood by Felix Summerly

Throughout this experiment cycle theories and experimental results are shared with the scientific community by their publication in science journals. To continue our analogy, we need to find somewhere to put the big bad wolf (the experiment and its results). So, let’s put the wolf in Grandma’s bed.

Once articles have been published in the science journals, their contents and conclusions are available not only to the scientific community, but also to the media, or Little Red Riding Hood as I shall call them here. In the story, Little Red Riding Hood visited her Grandma’s house and found the wolf in the bed. Instead of taking in the whole picture and realising there was a wolf in Grandma’s bed, she concentrated on individual features that stood out as being different: eyes, teeth, etc.

A similar problem occurs with the media’s reporting of scientific studies. Instead of reporting the entire results they select extracts that will be of interest to their readers or serve their particular political agenda. For example, going back to product X, one study may conclude that eating small quantities is beneficial to health. Another study may report that eating excessive quantities of product X is harmful. Both studies could be correct at these extremes but, although they may agree on a number of other conclusions, it may only be these conflicting results that are reported in the mainstream media. The media reports, therefore, tell us that product X is both good for us and bad for us.

It is this same type of selective reporting that may conclude incorrectly from the big bad wolf’s blowing down of the first little pig’s house that all houses are a bad idea, i.e. the original scientific theory has no merit. Is this the fault of the media though?

The media exist to distribute information to the public and will only survive if their audience is interested in the stories they report. If the public do not take an active interest in the progress of science its reporting will be left to those who wish to push one side of an argument or be reduced to mere entertainment. So, we the public are, in part, responsible for the conflicting reports that are passed down to us.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ Porridge

Even when the results of a study are published in full, they are still open to differences in interpretation. One area where these differences are apparent is the contentious issue of climate change. From the same set of results one scientific camp can claim that climate change is a real danger and another can claim that we have nothing to worry about.

In our nursery rhyme analogy these differences of interpretation can be represented by porridge. In the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, each of the bowls of porridge on the table in the three bears’ cottage was at a different temperature. When Goldilocks entered the house she tasted porridge from each of the bowls and then decided which was to her liking. The same applies to the public when confronted with different interpretations of scientific theories; we must examine each interpretation in turn to make our own decision.

Happily Ever After

In conclusion, we can see that science is an ongoing process that builds upon the foundations of the work of others. It is also evident that the portrayal of science in the mainstream media has little to do with the advancement of scientific thought and is more concerned with public entertainment or political agendas.

So, what can we do to improve this state of affairs? The only way that the portrayal of science in the media will change is if there is a demand for thorough and accurate science stories. We have to follow the example of Goldilocks and take an active interest in science so that we can be provided with the information to form our own conclusions.

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