Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Science, well sort of …VinoCaffeChocolata risk/benefits revealed!

In my previous post I called out some norms of journalism that have the effect of diluting and confusing the role of science in shaping our beliefs or informing our views. I labeled these ‘balance’, ‘controversy’ and ‘replication’. Oh so cleverly, I even used a real ‘science’ experiment to prove my point… In a nutshell, the experiment showed us that journalism and the media are inherently limited …that by their very nature, news stories can never really get it ‘right’, particularly when the issues at hand are complex, nuanced and informed by science.

But here’s the rub…this is not a failing of the media.  It simply is what it is.  The real failing, if there is one, is our inability to recognize these inherent limits.  We consume media blindly, agree with it when it conforms to our beliefs and dismiss it when it does not.  We expect accuracy and objectivity only when it suits us, and yet we crave controversy and flagrantly pass along bunk.  We are all complicit in the creation of our myths, our world views.  Railing against the media for its failures to tell the truth, whether it comes from the left or right, rational or emotional, science or faith based perspectives, completely misses the point.  As our buddy Pogo told us long ago (…did I just date myself? Google it kids) “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The essential point is that news, like science, just spits out data.  Its truth or meaning is not derived from the objective finding, but rather by the meaning we give it.  Some examples from recent headlines can help make the point…

Radioactive kelp and fish linked to Fukushima found along Western US coast!

Cards on the table…I am a proponent of nuclear energy as part of a solution to mitigate global warming and feel that fears about anything to do with radiation are generally wildly overblown. So when I read these headlines, I immediately sought to confirm my bias, which in this case was pretty easy to do.  While the ‘data’  does indeed show some minute radioactive traces in the kelp and fish, what does it mean?  Not much it turns out.  Levels were so small they pose zero, none, nada risk.  Further, one could argue that this simply confirms that stuff moves around in the world’s oceans…not shocking.   But if your bias is that nuclear energy is bad, risky etc, then those details didn’t matter to you…The fact that ANY radiation got here was the meaning you gave it, and that probably bothered you…see how this goes?

Studies show X to increase the risk of Y by Z percent! (so many examples of this it’s easier to use algebra, and that’s never easy, at least for me).
Lots of ramifications come from these types of headlines, which we seem to see daily.   To make one up, let’s say that “Aspirin is shown to increase the risk of ulcers by 5%”.  Hmmm, what does this mean?  How do we interpret the data?  In many of these cases, I think the first question to ask is 5% of what?  Did it go from nothing to 5% (which by the way is not a 5% increase, but I don’t want to get too mathy here)?  Or did it got from 95% to 100%…a totally different thing.  And remember, these are only statistical probabilities, never statements of certainty.

Unfortunately, the media can be 100% correct in reporting the data on stories such as these, and yet completely miss the meaning or relevance in a host of ways.  And it gets even worse when they inject the norms of balance, controversy and or replication.  Again, if you really want to know the meaning, you’ll have to do a lot of work on your own…and we have to admit it’s unlikely that we will.  More likely we will simply filter information to align with our preconceived world views or experiences.  Sorry, but we can’t lay that off on the media.

Studies show VinoCaffeChocolata is proven to extend/shorten the pleasure/pain of life/death!
Oh, my very favorite… Again, full disclosure, to varying degrees and at different times of the day, I’m extremely fond (gulp…dependent??) on these substances.  Drugs all, they alter my moods, energize me etc. So when I read reports of studies that seem to indicate their benefits, I embrace them; and any bad news is shuffled away to the waste bin of my brain.  I conveniently forget that the World Health Organization classifies coffee as a possible carcinogen (along with a lot of other stuff, but that too is another column) and celebrate that it’s OK for women to have some alcohol when pregnant, as no doubt my Mom did back in the 50’s with me.

My bottom line on all this is that the media is not entirely to blame for what we perceive to be their failings.  Sure, they’ll make lots of mistakes, but that is not the point.  Even if perfect, they can only give us data and an attempt at meaning.  We give the data the real meaning as it pertains to us, shaped by our biases, experience, world views etc.

So, what do you believe?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Science, well sort of...the media experiment you can do at home

This will be really exciting. …Today we’re going to do a real life SCIENCE experiment! … OK, well sort of.  For those of you nice enough to have read my previous posts, you’ll recall I’ve often woven in the impact of the media on our perceptions of science related issues. Today we’re going to get really sciency and dig way deeper.

So for our experiment we need to set up our “lab”, which will physically reside inside of your mind.  In order to ensure there is no danger of external contamination, turn off the TV and set your digital devices to airplane mode or something (admit it, you never really turn them off when taking off anyway).  Find a quiet place to sit, and close your eyes.

Now I want you to think back to a time when you had the occasion to read or see a news story about a topic or event with which you had personal experience.  You may have been one of the subjects of the story, or your company or family member was, or maybe you were just a firsthand witness to the circumstances that were being reported.  Now, quickly, think about the reporting …were all the facts correct, and perhaps more importantly, were all the facts included?  Was the context and meaning for those facts accurately portrayed?  Again, was anything missing or misrepresented?

According to my precise calculations based on the replication of this experiment many times, I can reliably predict the following…the story that you read or saw got it all wrong.  The journalist left things out, misrepresented the facts, got the context wrong, and just plain blew it.  You questioned the professionalism of that journalist, and perhaps even their intent.  And most importantly, the more you knew about the actual facts, the worse the story was.

So let’s deconstruct this…there are many things going on here at once.  First on the media side (we’ll came back to you later) there are a number of factors at work.  I won’t get into an exhaustive list here, but for me the top three are “balance”, “controversy” and “replication”.

We all recognize the first one – balance.  It’s where in order to appear unbiased and balanced in the reporting, the media seeks disparate or contrary views.  This journalistic norm can indeed play an important role, but not always.  A favorite anecdote to illustrate this is the time an old friend of mine was watching a TV reporter doing an on the street interview about plans for a new park in town.  He saw one person after another say they wanted and supported the new park … unless you are the grumpy old neighbor, who wouldn’t?  So after seeing about a dozen folks say they wanted it, he got an idea.  He walked up to the reporter and said he opposed the park, and that more parking lots were needed.  Of course, that night on the news, they showed one person speaking in favor of the park and my naughty buddy “opposing” it.  So despite actual overwhelming support for the park, the norm of balance in reporting resulted in the nominal impression of a 50-50 split of opinion on the issue, or at minimum, some material opposition to the park.  And perhaps most importantly, those of us who knew the least about the actual details of the story were left with a skewed impression of the facts.

Sadly we see this ”balance” being played out in reporting on a whole host of science based issues.  Time after time we see reports about science or health issues in which doubt is cast on the evidence simply by the media giving voice to an opposing view, no matter how minor, baseless or ridiculous.  And while it may be factually correct to say some folks have a different opinion, when it comes to science, mere opinion does not count; only rigorous evidence does. By employing the journalistic norm of balance the media is inadvertently giving credence and support to everyone from climate deniers to vaccination opponents.  And while these folks may feel they have valid reasons for their beliefs, they are not based on science.

This leads us to our second norm, the need for “controversy”.  “News is something somebody else doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising” said William Randolph Hearst.  Put another way, if there is no tension, dispute or controversy, the media in general has less interest.  It is the very tension of varying opinions or a dispute of facts that can make an issue newsworthy.  Therefore, by instinct, practice, and the desire to maximize revenues, the media often seeks or highlights stories where a nominal conflict is being played out. But as with “balance”, too often these are false controversies, existing only as an artifact of the publishing of opposing views.   Climate denial is exhibit A.

Finally, there is what I call “replication”.  This is the phenomenon that once a story gets reported, it is almost impossible to un-report it, no matter how wrong or false.  In the era of online 24/7 journalism, once published, a story can live forever.  Equally, elements of the story are then replicated in future stories on the same topic, irrespective of whether or not they are correct.  This is the outcome of cut and paste journalism, driven by the ever present need to fill the news hole.  A quick Google search will provide material previously (and often erroneously) reported, which then gets included in the new piece …and so it goes.

However, before we storm the Bastille of journalism, we need to step back and take a look at our own culpability in all this … but that’s for next time.  So …what do you believe?