Why Don’t Journalists Understand Science?

Friends have lately had to endure my ranting about how pathetic and irresponsible the media is when it comes to reporting on things scientific and statistical. The issue that has most commonly set me off lately has been the way the US press has turned SARS into the Black Death, damned near annihilating the Ontario economy in the process.

Fact is, if you go to Toronto, SARS does pose a threat to your health. If, while there, you fight your way past security, break into a respiratory quarantine, and French-kiss an elderly patient who suffers from the disease. If you’re just walking the streets, you have a better chance being run down by a taxicab than you do of contracting SARS.

The problem is that the average reporter knows diddley about science and even less about statistics, but he or she knows all about the value of splashy headlines. And most citizens know about as much as the reporters. In the US, at least, we don’t do a very good job teaching about research and research methods, so periodically a new study will be released with some guarded, preliminary findings, and some halfwit cub reporter will jump it like it’s the last chopper out of Saigon (a reference said cub reporter won’t understand, by the way). Next thing you know, all of America is obsessed with what is essentially fiction.

Let me give you a good, and very recent, example. CNN.com yesterday ran a story headlined, “Scientists: Opposites don’t attract.” The lead is fairly straightforward: “The theory that opposites attract is a myth, say a group of U.S. scientists who have found men and women are more likely to choose partners who are similar – or they believe are similar – to themselves.” So far so good. The article explains that “both sexes are most likely to attract individuals who look like them and have the same wealth, social status and share the same outlook towards family and fidelity.”

Now, having done my share of reading on the subject, I was immediately skeptical (if you haven’t read Nancy Etcoff’s Survival of the Prettiest, I recommend it as a hellaciously well-researched examination of the subject). But hey, I read on. Maybe there’s something new and useful here.

As it turns out, the CNN story is brutally flawed. Now, I can’t speak to the accuracy of the actual study, having not seen it, but the (anonymous) reporter telling us about it doesn’t know the first damned thing about how to evaluate research.

Let’s examine. A few paragraphs down we get this:

“…marriage between equivalent people has the best chance of success, say the scientists from Cornell University in New York.”

And then:

“Between similar matches there was less chance of breaking apart and therefore more stability to bring up children.”

Okay. Maybe. As the esteemed Dr. Stewart Hoover, a former prof of mine at the U of Colorado, was fond of saying, this is a testable hypothesis.

So where did this particular train jump the tracks? Well, reporters are notoriously clueless when it comes to understanding methodology. Fortunately, the writer of the story was kind enough to accidentally demonstrate his/her idiocy. Check this:

“The results were based on questionnaires by 978 students aged between 18 and 24. Respondents were asked to rank the importance they placed on 10 attributes in a long-term partner.”

Errrm, excuse me? You’re going to make claims about “the best chance of success” and “less chance of breaking apart” on a survey administered to students who are 24 at the oldest?!!

Again, the study may be far better than the reporter inadvertently makes it look. For example, if the claim is that similarities dictate who will get together in the first place (and that seems to be part of what is being examined here), then this study may be on the mark (although they’re probably not telling us anything we haven’t seen evidence of before – I was studying personal attraction research that said much the same thing as an undergrad in 1983). (I should also point out that I have serious reservations about this particular breed of “social science,” but for the moment I’ll play along for the sake of argument.)

Or maybe there were separate samples, and the “stay together” claim is based on surveys of older, more established subjects. Don’t know, not from this reportage. But as presented, I’m being asked to believe that we’ve substantially contributed to our understanding of the success and longevity of human relationships based on a questionnaire filled out by mostly undergrads. Trust me on this – I know undergrads. I used to be one. They’re the last place I’d go for valid information on putting together a lasting relationship.

Hell, even if they are experts on the subject, the best they can do is tell you what goes into staying together for what, three years?

In the end, I’m left with a story that makes patently ludicrous claims, and does so in a way that the Science editors at CNN should be ashamed of. Whoever produced this story has no business being a reporter, let alone a science reporter, and the editor who let it slip past him or her – onto the home page of CNN.com, ferchrissakes – needs to be shipped back to the Fashion desk posthaste, preferably at the Fargo bureau.

Our culture finds itself in an odd place re: science and technology. On the one hand, we’re daily producing volumes of advanced knowledge that scientists a mere generation ago couldn’t have imagined. It hurts my simple country boy head to ponder some of the things we now know and some of the challenges our researchers are now addressing. The tech curve is damned near vertical at the moment.

But the laity (that’s means common folk, for any CNN science reporters who may be reading this blog) seem less and less capable of understanding any of it. In the case of high-end theoretical research, that’s forgivable. But when it comes to the reporting and comprehension of basic research like the story here, there is simply no excuse.

While there’s plenty of blame for our public school system, the fact that the country’s Journalism schools are cranking out graduates who lack even the most rudimentary ability to evaluate research reports is nothing short of scandalous.

Our colleges and universities offer plenty of research methods courses, and it’s high time a semester or two became a prerequisite for a Journalism degree.

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