Doubts about social contagion

Slate has an important article about how the studies behind last year’s headlines saying that things like divorce, obesity and loneliness spread through social networks like a ‘contagion’ may not be as sound as the stories suggested.

The headline grabbing study on ‘divorce contagion’ has still yet to be published as it hasn’t made it through the scientific peer-review process. The authors are criticised for talking to the media about the conclusions before the results have been confirmed.

Other studies were published in leading journals but the same publications have been much less keen to air criticisms of the work despite the fact that many leading names in the network analysis community have highlighted problems in the methods used in the research.

This is perhaps the real story here, as many conclusions turn out to be wrong in science, but the big name journals work much more like the popular media than they like to admit – heralding flashy new findings but being unwilling to take on the responsibility of continuing the debate after the glitz has faded.

It’s worth noting that the debate about the ‘social contagion’ studies is ongoing but the Slate article has some good coverage of where the growing doubts lie.

Link to Slate article ‘Disconnected?’

3 thoughts on “Doubts about social contagion”

  1. It’s how you publicize anything that might not be true. You say “There is a study in progress which shows:”
    As soon as there is reason to believe it MIGHT have scientific backing – Everyone grabs the headline, everyone discusses it and speculates about it.
    Only the hardcore researchers wait and read the actual study when it is published 2 years later.
    In the mean time any money that could be made off the results has been collected, and by the time the findings are released, the authors have moved on to something else even more sensational.

  2. The authors are criticised for talking to the media about the conclusions before the results have been confirmed.
    That’s a little harsh. Everyone who’s got a sexy result does this; the fault is with the reporting failing to follow up (or to place the research in a suitable context).

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