October 28, 2005

Proxies and Statistics

After reading chapters 4 & 5 of It Ain't Necessarily So, I was very pleased to note that the authors seemed a little less biased towards reporters and scientists and more critical of the way standard research is being conducted.

In these two chapters, the authors discuss both the shortcomings of proxies and their inability to accurately portray certain intangibles such as hunger and poverty as well as the often contradictory nature of statistics.

What struck me about this chapter was that the authors didn’t place on reporters and scientists for doing it wrong, but rather they blamed the fact that they simply haven’t found a better way yet. In reference to proxies, the authors state that:

Researchers may thing that they know what hunger and poverty are, and that proxies enable us to see how many hungry and poor people there are; but those assumptions, which are evident in almost all media coverage of research on poverty and hunger, are debatable (72).
The authors recognize that the fault doesn’t completely lie with the reporters who are covering the misleading studies, nor do they suggest that it lies with the scientists conducting the studies. They simply state that there must be a better method as the one that is currently employed is insufficient. They even go so far as to suggest a way in which reporters can make the best of this situation:
It’s clear that we want to know answers to certain questions. But it’s also clear that it may be hard to get answers to them and that proxies do not always provide particularly meaningful or reliable answers. New accounts that gloss over this problem fail to point out the limitations – at times the unavoidable limitations – of research…Reporters shouldn’t say “how many” (people are hungry, poor, endangered by high exposure to EMFs, etc.) unless they also say “how” (the researcher arrived at the number (84).

I think that this is an important suggestion that pertains not only to reporting on proxies, but to any type of reportage. Reporters need to know all the circumstances of a situation before they can assume the truth.

Posted by JohannaDreyfuss at October 28, 2005 12:57 AM | TrackBack

Ah, but isn't it sorta impossible for journalists to "know all the circumstances," especially considering the kinds of time constraints that they are usually under?

Posted by: ChrisU at October 31, 2005 11:16 AM

Well, reporters need to go into every situation with the idea that they can learn all the circumstances. Obviously they can only do what they can, but if a reporter goes into a story with the idea that he won't have enough time to learn all of the circumstances, he subverts his own efforts. Aim for the highest level of performance possible, and you might just reach it.

Also, if a reporter doesn't have enough time to research everything, he should be conscious of that as he's writing his story and not claim to know the entire truth.

Posted by: Johanna at October 31, 2005 12:23 PM

I like your analysis very much. I guess that everything is relevant--what constitutes hunger to me, might not to someone else. All the reporter can do is point that out while somehow keeping his opinion out of the story.

Posted by: NancyGregg at October 31, 2005 05:58 PM
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