Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Misleading headlines

Headlines often don't match the story. It may be my imagination, but I think scientific stories are some of the most egregious offenders. I don't know if it's because the editor doesn't really understand the content, or what. For example, consider this one, "Virtual reality used to transfer men's minds into a woman's body." (h/t Instapundit) It's certainly eyecatching. So what does the actual story say:

In a study at Barcelona University, men donned a virtual reality (VR) headset that allowed them to see and hear the world as a female character. When they looked down they could even see their new body and clothes.

The "body-swapping" effect was so convincing that the men's sense of self was transferred into the virtual woman, causing them to react reflexively to events in the virtual world in which they were immersed.

That sounds promising. What's the data they base their conclusion on?
Men who took part in the experiment reported feeling as though they occupied the woman's body and even gasped and flinched when she was slapped by another character in the virtual world.
Later in the study, the second character lashed out and slapped the face of the character the men were playing. "Their reaction was immediate," said Slater. "They would take in a quick breath and maybe move their head to one side. Some moved their whole bodies. The more people reported being in the girl's body, the stronger physical reaction they had."
Wait. What?

The first is subjective. It's hard to make any definite conclusions about what it means, since it's hard to say what they meant when they said they "felt they were in the woman's body." That was definitely their perspective, and to that degree they were.

As for the second, that may be more scientific, but it's less interesting. It's the simple realization that the first person perspective makes things appear to happen to you. Any player of a first person shooter could have told you that. When I first played Doom, I'd flinch from incoming attacks, crane my neck to peer over windows in my very two-dimensional computer screen, shift my weight to reflect my movement. It has very little to do with whether the avatar is male or female, but rather with the fact that I identify with first-person events as if they're happening to me. In doing so, I more projected myself in the avatar's place, than projected the avatar on to me.

So the experiment was hardly revolutionary in its discoveries, and I'm afraid that it's a long way from justifying the headline.

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