Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Journalists and Junk Science

Very good article from Catherine Seipp in National Review Online on Media & Junk Science. She write how journalists and editors, through a combination of ignorance, laziness and bias, let some egregious bad science go through the media. She has examples!

Me, I've firmly believed that all journalists should be made to take basic sciences and math in college as a requirement for a journalism degree. For my psych degree, I had to take statistics and that has helped me enormously to understand real statistics and meaning from the junk that slips through. ("Bush Leads Kerry by 3%" for example. If the margin of error in the poll is 3%, then it's a statistical dead heat.)

I've heard too many reporters and journalists joke that they went into journalism to escape the hard sciences to not take some truth from the statement. Too many articles will contain whopper errors, especially in environmental or medical reporting, that a simple knowledge of science can cure.

Another example? In this otherwise good UPI analysis of the match between a Martian rock and some asteroidal rocks found on Earth, the author says this:
During the early eons of the solar system, planetary impacts were downright common. Given the relative proximity of Earth and Mars, it is easy to accept the possibility that materials propelled upward from one planet eventually could make their way to the other.

The first organisms on Earth originated around 3.5 billion years ago and maybe earlier. Back then, impacts from asteroids and comets still were common. It is conceivable that material ejected from Earth by those impacts could have landed on Mars carrying some of those organisms -- or their raw ingredients. The converse also is possible -- early organisms from Mars could have landed on Earth.

The discovery of Bounce raises the distinct possibility that life arising from a common source could have existed for a time on both worlds.
Well, not quite. Simple physics and some environmental science would show that it's highly unlikely any rocks from Earth made it back to Mars, while the opposite is much more likely. Martian gravity is a fraction of Earth's, meaning it takes less impact energy to send rock into space. Mars' atmosphere is also a fraction of Earth's, meaning the rocks can surpass atmospheric friction on Mars more easily than Earth.

Mostly, though, our solar system is like a large, circular slope, with smaller round slopes inside it. The Sun is one giant gravity well, pulling everything out to the Kuiper Belt into it. Anything ejected from Mars will start to slide inexorably into the Sun, passing Earth's smaller gravity well in the process. Whereas anything ejected from Earth must work against the Sun's pull to move outward to Mars. All that adds up to a far tinier likelihood of Earth being a seed for Mars than the other way round.

Chemistry, math, physics, statistics, history, psychology, economics, sociology, biology, earth sciences, atmospheric sciences, a working knowledge of all these would be immeasureable aids to reporters and journalists. It strikes me as intuitive that they'd be somewhat better educated in these subjects than many of their readers. It would allow them to recognise false claims, to spot spin by funding and headline seekers, to stamp out bias that serves a political agenda. It would certainly make reporters better at their jobs.

One thing I've always wondered at was the frequency with which you see reporters labelled as "specialists" in some field by dint of nothing more than reporting on it for some period of time. No college background, no study, nothing. This is especially true for reporters covering business and economics, where seeing through government and opposition spin is vital to accurate reporting.

Take for example the Kerry "middle class misery index." There is an economic tool called the "misery index." It's a defined and specific measure. The Kerry campaign simply selected some random economic measures by which they could claim that things are worse today than under Clinton. Then they named it too-closely to the real thing. Many reporters simply passed along the MCMI without noting, or bothering to note, the distinction and its problems. Some sharp-eyed folks noticed that under the MCMI, the best time in America was under Jimmy Carter! Folks who remember then would beg to disagree. All it would've taken is a simple understanding of economics to stop that spin cold.

Same for many "environmental" reporters who haven't studied anything scientific in college, but are motivated by the desire to fix the world. That's why the global warming debate is so muddied. Too much bad or malicious information is unknowingly passed along. Same for "medical" reporters who will jump on the latest study as "proving" something, when that likely hasn't happened, or who will promote the latest diet silliness uncritically. Same for "political" reporters who don't know their history, political history, or political and sociological science. Same for "education" reporters who never studied education themselves. Same for "business" reporters who have never run or managed a business, nor studied regulation or market economics.It especially pains me when reporters new to the city get sent to report on events that have deep local history; they simply don't understand the resonance and subtler implications of what they cover. Their readers or viewers suffer

Replace "feelings" (note that I'm not saying "intuition") and journalistic templates with some sound groundings in the basics of science and the quality of journalism and reporting would definitely go up. Readers benefit and the community is better served.

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