We're still being duped

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"Reporters shouldn't say 'how many' ... unless they also say 'how'..." (84)

Throughout these chapters, the authors definitely kept their theme of the human element interfering in news, especially scientific reports - namely, in chapter 2 they focused on how reports can mislead if reporters fail to classify initial findings as premature or mature findings as disputed, while in chapter 3 they focus on how reporters can mislead again if they fail to name the operational definitions utilized when collecting survey results.

However, in chapter 3 I thought the authors began to discuss a completely different king of human error - that of the researchers themselves.  This chapter focuses primarily on researchers who use inaccurate proxies in place of direct research. 

To me, this chapter seemed to be pointing out all the problematic aspects of the researchers’ use of proxies in social and natural science research, not journalists'.  Of course, that attack would be a little off-topic, so the authors instead chastise reporters for not identifying the limitations of proxies, as in the above quote.  Not to downplay the responsibility that journalists have to find the most balanced, objective, and factual information, I think this argument was a little weak.  If reporters' information is flawed from the get-go, from the most expert source available, how are they adjust for any errors, or even know that errors exist in the data?  To follow the logic of the authors, reporters in these instances would need to become reporters/researchers, and completely re-analyze the experiment/situation from the researcher’s perspective.  Isn't this why we interview and cite experts in the first place?  And in a perfect world it would be ideal for a reporter to analyze every detail of a report to this extreme extent, but in the deadline-controlled world of journalism, is this really plausible?

 

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3 Comments

Jeremy Barrick said:

Are journalists now doing a multitude of objectives other than writing? We, journalists, are now researchers and scientists! So, I am not against the use of proxies, to some extent, as opposed to dirsect research. As you can see, I am a bit bothered by the fact that I am now multitasking a job that once required only a pen and paper!

Carrie Kraszewski said:

Humans all make errors, whether they are scientists or not, and if you think about it, showing statistics or scientific data in the news is kinda like a type of persuasion isn't it? More people care if someone with a PHD has something to say.

When it's not possible to measure what you're looking for, then hunting for proxies is better than nothing. The problem isn't really that the scientists are measuring proxies, but that headlines can mislead the general public into thinking that a report that suggested a possible link has instead proved causation.

I recall reading about a researcher would spend all day in the British Library (a huge archive of historical material) and order box after box of archives to be brought to him, and he would open them up and smell them.

Someone else finally asked him what he was doing, and he said that he was studying historical outbreaks of the plague, and that if people thought the plague had hit a particular location, they would put a certain chemical on all the mail that arrived from that location. So if he smelled that chemical in the box, he knew that somewhere inside was a letter from someone who lived in an area that somebody else thought was likely to be suffering from the plague. Just because a letter from Town X smelled like it had been through the chemical didn't necessarily mean that that town did have the plague at the time, but it was a clue that, taken together with other details (such as the contents of the chemically-doused letter) would be extremely useful.

But the human survival instinct basically rewards us for mistaking association with causation. We're programmed to look for warning signs, and that survival instinct drives us to assess the risks and act. That's why bad news generally sells more papers than good news.

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