Gimmick lead, redux

The point of pointless interactivity

As someone who sifts through reams of science news every day, I am always grateful to journalists that throw the occasional curveball-or, as it happens today, the occasional oddball.

On Monday, the New Scientist blog posted the results of a month-long experiment titled, “Can you spot a liar?” The exercise, originally posted May 9, asks readers to watch two videos of the magazine’s editor, Jeremy Webb, talking about his favorite movie. In one he describes The Core, and in the other, The Fifth Element. Webb is telling the truth in only one video, however, and readers are left to guess which film is actually his favorite.

The answer is The Fifth Element, and upwards of 70 percent of New Scientist readers got it right, with social scientists and mathematicians faring better than biologists and engineers. “In tests with a 50:50 chance of getting the right answer, people generally score little better than 50%, which is merely chance,” the post reads. So cheers to the smarty-pants NS audience.

But the point of interest here is not the experiment’s results; rather, it is the experiment itself and the fact that others like it are becoming more popular in the press. Most of the MSM’s experimentation in science reporting is, logically, happening online, where editors and reporters can interact with audiences in ways that were previously unheard of. The movie experiment published by NS doesn’t, by itself, reveal much about human psychology and social behavior. Instead, it serves (ideally) as a way to attract and direct readers to more substantial reporting and information.

For instance, the results and original post of the movie game contain links to a July 2005 story that appeared in the NS print magazine under the headline, “The Truth About Lies.” The article, by Raj Persaud, is a much more serious account of those people who are and are not natural human lie detectors (a group psychologists refer to as “wizards”). The NS posts also contain links to the work of Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K., who designed the movie-game experiment with Webb. He has recently authored a book called Quirkology - “the use of scientific methods to study quirky human behaviour, or quirky methods to probe weightier topics.”

The experiment may help improve news readership more than it improves our understanding of human nature-after all, audiences are one of the most quirky and fickle groups around, and novel strategies to catch their attention are becoming ever more important to editors and publishers.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.