October 25, 2005

Chapter 2 and 3 "It Ain't Necessarily So"

"In short, reports on research, like testimony in a trial, should offer 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.' Cover can easily mislead when reporters don't make it sufficiently clear that premature science may well not offer the truth." (page 36).

The goal of chapter 2 is to make sure that all facts, well represented, are given before printing a story, and making it well known through the media. There are many cases to which people have made claims and the media jumped on them and put the stories out in the open, only later proving what they said to be false. The title of the chapter is "Much Ado About Little." (page 35). The chapter shows many cases that show different parts of media making stories much bigger than they really are. They put stories that end up not being newsworthy on the front page of a paper, because its interesting. This is why we learn that the important facts make the story interesting! So what should the media do? If they don't have a story, then they don't have a business?

What they should do is make sure that the facts that they get is a well represented core of people who test a certain piece of research. In one particular case, a scientist said that there was a steep decline in sperm counts. So what does the U.S. News & World Report "warned that 'in the not too distant future, men may have a difficult time upholding their end of the biblical bargain' to be fruitful and multiply." Not to mention Business Week discussed the "fear that the latest endangered species could be us." (page 41).

So now everyone is scared of the steep decline of sperm counts. But do you know what the percentages were of people tested after 1970? 88.1%!!! How could they possibly know if there was a steep decline if only 11.9% were tested before 1970? That is an unreliable comparison. Not enough scientific evidence is given to prove that there is a decline, yet different news sources are worried about the endangered species of humans?

It ain't necessarily so! That's why we need well represented facts to prove something to be absolutely true.

Posted by The Gentle Giant at October 25, 2005 03:54 PM

So what would have been a good alternative for the newspapers covering the topic? Should they have researched themselves to know more details about the study, or should they have made a greater effort to find the other sides to the story? On the one hand, journalists are responsible for presenting all sides of the story, but on the other hand they are not scientists. They can't know all the details of the studies like the authors of this book do, so do you think the journalists reporting this finding really knew all of the discrepencies? How far should they have gone to show the discrepencies?

Posted by: Johanna at October 25, 2005 08:32 PM

I'm just saying journalists should know that facts are accurate and relevant before shoving them into a newspaper strictly as business. Journalists have to cover all sides of a story, but they also should know what is good comparable evidence, and what is actually just a false claim.

Posted by: Jason Pugh at October 25, 2005 09:05 PM

Johanna and Jay, think back to the principle of proportionality in news coverage. Can you apply it to points the authors of IANS make?

On a related note, is it bad scientists who are making the false claims? In other words, is the answer that we should all fear and mistrusts scientists? (I know you're not suggesting that, of course, I'm exaggerating.)

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at October 25, 2005 09:17 PM

Something that really bothers me about this book is that they discuss how ill-proportioned the news is, but they fail to offer any solutions or alternatives.

In terms of "bad scientists," I think they're not bad so much as trying to prove their own theory. The authors of the book themselves are biased against reporters, highlighting only the cases where the news covers bad cases. There is no mention whatsoever of reports of valid or "newsworthy" studies. I think these authors are just as guilty as the reporters they are condemning.

Posted by: Johanna at October 25, 2005 09:56 PM

I absolutely agree with Johanna. There is not another alternative to what journalists can do about people making false claims with facts. It is really difficult to determine what IS good material to use, especially when journalists aren't scientists. I think that the scientists jobs are to get their facts straight, and to use clear, representative, equal samples to make their statements true. No, scientists are not all bad, but they should be able to get their facts straight.

Posted by: Jason Pugh at October 25, 2005 10:14 PM

As is discussed in the Prologue of the book, scientists are merely in the business of "associations" and "possible links." Nothing can really be proven beyond any and all doubt, because human beings simply don't possess all knowledge of everything. We are constantly discovering new aspects of things we thought we always knew.

I don't think that we should "fear" or "mistrust" scientists; I think we should simply be aware that they are only making educated guesses, with more information and knowledge than the common person. We shouldn't place unrealistic expectations on scientists, in the same way that we shouldn't place unrealistic expectations on journalists -- that is, we shouldn't expect journalists to be free of error in their news reports.

I think that the reason the authors of this book do not balance their "purely negative" view of journalism with some positive examples is because they feel the public already knows that not *everything* the news says is riddled with lies -- after all, the government probably wouldn't let newspapers function as they do if they were agents of pure deceit.

The authors want to be sure that their message sticks in their readers' minds, and the best way to do that is to deliver it point blank, over and over again, without concern for the other sides of the issue.

Posted by: ChrisU at October 25, 2005 11:53 PM

Excellent point Chris. Tomorrow's presentation should be fun and interesting.

Posted by: Jason Pugh at October 26, 2005 12:59 AM

I just wanted to say, excellent presentation. The fanny pack anecdote definitely grabbed my attention and also helped tack a good lead onto something that could have been boring. I agree that the journalists are not to blame and it almost goes along with the old saying "don't shoot the messanger." I think journalists and readers have the responsibility (at least to themselves) to really question statistics and if there's not time for that at least ask someone whom you know has a much different opinion than you do. This goes along with proportionality as well as balance, which we discussed from the beginning.

Posted by: Erin Waite at October 26, 2005 12:04 PM

I agree with, Erin--great presentation. Most people, in my opinion, aren't qualified to evaluate scientific findings, but we can be discerning as to how they are reported.

Incidentally, my nephew is a free-lance, scientific journalist. His undergraduate degree is in molecular biology and his masters is in technical writing. So he's well qualified for his job. We all wondered why he didn't continue in biology, but he loves traveling around (sometimes the world) and reporting.

Posted by: NancyGregg at October 26, 2005 12:56 PM

I absolutely agree with you Erin about how journalists do have a responsibility to make sure that the TRUTH is exposed to their audience. And as for Nancy, I agree that most people are not qualified to evaluate findings. Now that I have just contradicted myself, let me explain why.

I think that there is a lack of communication between what a scientist puts into their research, and what a journalist puts into their paper. I think that a simple answer should be found for this: Scientists should provide well represented facts based off of equal and sufficient testing. Journalists should explore more into a particular topic before writing down ideas to interest their readers. It seems to be so easy, yet the lack of communication is still present.

Posted by: Jason Pugh at October 26, 2005 04:36 PM

As Lauren pointed out in her blog (http://blogs.setonhill.edu/LorinSchumacher/2005/10/aims_of_the_tex.html), the authors did lay out clearly in the beginning of the text that they were trying to be more critical than criticizing in an exaggerated way.

I personally think they did not have to go to such great hyperbolic lengths. However, the authors are statisticians who have their own perspective(s). I personally don't agree with their methods, but I do agree with their message (which is directed more at the consumers): carefully evaluate what you read and don't take things at face value because... It ain't necessarily so!

Posted by: Evan at October 28, 2005 01:25 AM
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