Saturday, August 10, 2013

Failing to Tell the Whole Story

I decided to share Thursday's post about the improved temporal resolution of magnetoencephalography (MEG) in brain imaging with a friend who happens to have far more hands-on experience with imaging studies that I have. It turns out that Elisabeth Armstrong Moore's CNET blog post left out two important observations:
  1. There is nothing new about MEG, which has been around for some time and is basically a variation on electroencephalography (EEG).
  2. As is the case with EEG, the price of improved temporal resolution is poor spatial resolution.
I see this as more than an object lesson in the risks of what, back in 2010, Stanford University was touting as "Innovative Journalism." It is a reminder that "old school" journalism believed in checking all sources; and, when something important was a stake, making sure that it was confirmed by a reliable second source.

Nevertheless, even this tradition is no longer what it used to be. The fact is that we must assume that every source has a motive. Finding a second confirming source may not be sufficient if both sources share that motive. For example Moore's source may have been a member of a project trying to land a large grant for an extensive study based on MEG data. It is often the case that such large projects are shared across multiple institutions, often both academic and industrial. Thus, a second source from a different institution that happens to have the same vested interest in a shared grant proposal is no more reliable than the primary source.

If I were not so passionate about spending most of my time writing about music, I would think that it is about time to write a book on how market-based thinking has corrupted basic research beyond all recognition in the fullest spirit of the FUBAR acronym.

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