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Is it a Scientific Finding or a Sensational Headline? The Demise of American Democracy. #FakeNews #YellowJournalism

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Hi guys. I fear that today’s blog will be as much a rant as an informative article. So if I touch a nerve, join my rant by commenting below. The issue that got under my skin today is how sensationalism sells and how this has misled us and distorted “news.” As more of us rely on screens and social media to alert us to important world issues, yellow journalists are setting up fake virtual offices to create inflammatory, sharable articles. Each click-through brings money into their pockets from ads. That means a gullible public pays cons to misinform us. The cons recognize the more outrageous the claim, the more attention they get and the more money they make. They have learned that repeating inflammatory statements over and over can lead to their adoption as fact. Does an intentionally groomed and misled public threaten American democracy?

Our founding fathers created our governing system with the expressed intent of rule by the people. To protect the freedom and power of the people to be informed and vote, they wrote the first constitutional amendment protecting the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition for a governmental redress of grievances. They felt the free flow of information to the American public from a press that serves as a credible watchdog that keeps powerful officials in check was critical to American freedom. In my work to inform GKISsers about relevant parenting and screen issues, I became increasingly frustrated and alarmed. Here’s how my issues with screen media journalism arose:

I started GetKidsInternetSafe (GKIS) because, despite being somewhat tech-savvy with great personal and professional resources, I could not seem to land a workable plan managing my children’s technology use. I’d take a stab at this and that, but either get distracted along the way because the plan was too cumbersome, or become completely frustrated with the search and throw up my hands. Ultimately I’d end up doing very little and feeling chronically guilty.

My anxious search was exasperating partly because the Internet is flooded with sensational headlines that exaggerate risk! Even responsible reporters sometimes bypass credible experts in favor of interviewing somebody who’s willing to be provocative rather than factually responsible. Then another article would counter-react with the opposing, but also exaggerated viewpoint. Furthermore, sometimes even credible experts are inaccurately quoted. I was so frustrated trying to get sensible information that had persuasive evidence backing it, that I’d just give up in defeat. As I turned to my family, friends and colleagues, they just looked blankly back and said, “Yep! Exactly! I’m paralyzed too. Tracy, if you can’t do it with your expertise, then we’re doomed.”

Doomed? No way, not when it comes to kids. So from there I sought out the smartest, most creative, most energetic hot shots I knew and launched GKIS. I decided to do the hard work and comb through the psychology research, news articles, academic theories, and tried-and-true parenting strategies to create a comprehensive, easy parenting course that works. Like I teach my kids, when life gives you lemons, research the crap out of it and make the best possible lemon dessert with yummy crust and add something chocolate. Lemonade is just too simple.

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OK. So here’s the rant. As I’m researching for my GKIS parenting courses, I ran across an article titled, “America’s Less Religious: Study Puts Some Blame on the Internet,” by Elise Hu on NPR (link at the end of this blog). The article states that as Internet use has grown, people have become less religious. A study by computer scientist Allen Downey reportedly “found a causal relationship among three factors – a drop in religious upbringing, an increase in college-level education, and the increase in Internet use.” A causal relationship?

I teach my university students that the only type of study that yields evidence about a causal relationship is an experiment. Observational studies only suggest that there may be a relationship, but they cannot rule out unidentified extraneous variables that may contribute to the relationship between the study variables. More to the point, because they’re observational, these studies have no way to determine which – if any – of the variables they’re studying is doing the causing, and which is being affected. Therefore, causal claims are impossible to support if you have not conducted an experiment.

Yet this NPR article suggests that, since Downey can’t think of that third variable, there must not be one. And with a logistical regression method, voila! He can claim Internet use has killed religion! Pffft. This is a blatant misrepresentation of the data. Yes, based on the statistics those three variables appear to be related. But we don’t know if increased Internet use led to less religion or if less religion led to increased Internet use. In fact, a fourth unrecognized variable may have led to both, like maybe Internet use led to more screen time which led to more Facebook which led to more overwhelm which led to less leaving the house which led to less religiosity. I mean honestly, we don’t know until we integrate all variables or, better yet, design an experiment! In this case it is unclear to me if the researcher made these irresponsible claims or if the reporter misreported, but the article is flat wrong in its conclusion and misleading to the readers.

As a social scientist, I was irritated. So, in my ranting mood, I sought out my friend brilliant Georgetown double PhD biostatistician Dr. Rochelle Tractenberg, and asked her to give us a quick and informed comment about her reaction to the NPR story about this study. You can’t get a more credentialed expert with statistics than Dr. Tractenberg. (TIME OUT! My first Guest Blogger! WOW!). She responded:

My friend and colleague Tracy Bennett asked me to contribute some comments in response to the frustration she felt – and felt she needed to share with you! – after reading the media coverage of what seems, based on this coverage, to be a very weak study. I am a scientist myself, and I coach other scientists in the design and write up of their work, and I completely agree with Tracy about this media coverage!

In fact, as a person who sees “scientific articles” every single day of the week, I am very frustrated by how any “science” gets talked about in newspapers, on TV, blogs, “the Internet,” and radio. Probably the most common problem is that people outside of the field of science often believe that, if a scientific article made it through to publication, then it must actually be good, true, or right. That is just not true! Just because a paper was published in a “peer-reviewed” journal doesn’t make it good, correct, or meaningful.

I think a wider problem is that

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journalists should not be trusted to sift through what was published to bring “what matters” to the public’s attention.

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Just because a news outlet covers a paper’s having been published doesn’t mean the paper is accurate or even interesting. You might not know that new scientific papers are published every second of every day; probably TWO others were published in the same week on the exact same topic, with the opposite <maybe even the same!> results as whatever paper the media are covering that day. The question the reader must ask is, WHY WAS *THIS PAPER* CHOSEN FOR THIS REPORT? Very probably it was chosen because “it sounded interesting!” The CHOICE to cover a particular paper reflects the journalist’s interest and not the importance of the paper – not for its field and not for the public.

The purpose of scientists in publishing their work is usually to test theories and contribute new knowledge, but journalists’ purposes are to attract readers (if you have ever read a scientific paper, you can see plainly that it was NOT written to attract readers!).

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That means that people who get their “science” from journalists do not actually get “science.”

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Science moves in truly small steps and very few newsworthy “breakthroughs” ever occur, although news media make non-scientists believe that they happen often. Exceptions may come from fields like archeology or astronomy – where observations, and not experiments, are reported; if a new dinosaur was discovered and reported in the general media then it probably IS important!

Scientific papers follow very specific rules – including that they must consider the work that was done before and how their new results fit with those older results (whether the new results agree or disagree with the dominant theories). They must also always describe the limitations of their work and suggest what more might need to be done in future research. Media coverage follows very different rules; the article Tracy found was probably chosen because it is provocative – it could not have been chosen for the NPR story because it is true (impossible to tell!) or well done (it wasn’t). I would go so far as to say that all that a reader really can “learn” from a news story on something scientific is that “that research is going on.” A reader should NEVER infer from a news story about research that something important for daily life has actually been learned. 

faculty.photo.may2010Rochelle E. Tractenberg, Ph. D., M.P.H., Ph.D., PStat®
Director, Collaborative for Research on Outcomes and -Metrics
http://crom.gumc.georgetown.edu
Associate Professor
Neurology, Biostatistics, Bioinformatics & Biomathematics, and Psychiatry
Georgetown University Medical Center

Thank you Dr. Tractenberg.

Despite the complexities of staying accurately informed, I’m not giving up and neither should you. Not only am I pointing out these issues to you guys, but despite misleading sensationalism that can undermine and/or misrepresent legitimate scientific discoveries as well as overstate illegitimate ones, I am tirelessly gathering the evidence around parenting strategies with a discerning eye. I am searching for what we actually KNOW (i.e., what has diverse sources of legitimate support and has withstood real attempts at falsification) and what we THINK WE KNOW (i.e., what has fewer, or less diverse, sources of legitimate support that has also withstood real attempts at falsification), soaked and stirred with my clinical, academic, and parenting real-world know-how. Once armed with the information and strategies I provide, you too can make your most informed parenting decisions about what to implement for your family.

BLOGRESEARCH

To avoid lazy and potentially destructive information sharing in your family, please sprinkle these GKIS SmartTips into your GKIS Family Meetings today:

  1. Subscribe to credible news sources rather than rely on social media to feed your intellect.

  2. Go further than being a passive learner. Be a participant in smart, respectful discourse. Don’t hate. Open up and learn. Discuss, ask why, and dig deep. Avoid shaming or discriminating against others who disagree or using contempt or threats to silence exploration and discourse. Teach your kids to be respectful and measured, as well as assertive. Risk being wrong, and be brave enough to change your mind.

  3. Consider the original source of the information and data and assess it for quality and objectivity. Opinion is not fact.

  4. Consider the quality of the source. Specifically, was there a sponsor who might have been paid to favor one perspective in a way that may create bias?

  5. How big was the subject sample (group studied), and where did it come from? The bigger, the better! The findings gained from a unique or small study group should not be generalized to a larger, different group.

  6. If it was not an experiment, conclusions about causality cannot be reached. If the experiment did not involve a random sample and a control group, there is no support for causality and a far greater chance of bias (a third reason responsible for the finding instead of the one the researcher thinks it is).

  7. Look for supporting data.

  8. Look for opposing data. 

  9. Apply common sense.

  10. Don’t share fake news. 

Please share this blog link with anybody you know is sick of fake news. And comment below! A feisty public intent on learning and truth is a responsible and powerful public, just as our forefathers envisioned.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
GetKidsInternetSafe.com

Here’s the article that inspired my rant:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/04/21/303375159/americas-less-religious-study-puts-some-blame-on-the-internet?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20140421

Here is another, more recent NPR article about how even Stanford students can’t tell fake news from real news: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/11/23/503129818/study-finds-students-have-dismaying-inability-to-tell-fake-news-from-real?

Here is another useful article on the corruption of quality science: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/sep/05/publish-perish-peer-review-science

And if you really get into this stuff, the wild west of the Internet and BIG DATA! http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/21a6e7d8-b479-11e3-a09a-00144feabdc0.html#axzz32UGdYwH0

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1 comment… add one
  • ron logan August 15, 2014, 1:17 am

    one issue about your commentary on “causal” is that scientific terms have infiltrated the non-scientific lexicon. in this case “causal” might mean that it is a possible cause rather than the specific scientific meaning of a direct relationship. what may have a strict meaning scientifically speaking, is a more broad and general term in mainstream language. although this happens on its own as science permeates everyday life, i feel the media has not done its part to properly place the scientific data in proper context. in fact, what you suggest is sensationalism is often far more sinister. this inaccurate information is often intentional, trying to sway public opinion by cherry picking data, conflating information, misleading, or in some cases, outright lying – which supports your rant on the mass of misinformation. education of the masses is the best remedy, and with the media working in support of the corporations’ agendas, it is hard to reach out to society with any degree of reputability. ’tis a problem that is contributing to the downward list of america. chomsky makes great points in “manufacturing consent.” the misinformation is bad, but the motivation behind it is far more destructive.

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