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?

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