Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

Sep 10 2018

BBC and False Balance Revisited

In 2014 the BBC announced a policy change – that it would train its journalists to avoid false balance when reporting science news.  This was a welcome policy change, but apparently execution has not achieved the desired results. In a recent training brief the BBC admits it often gets its science reporting wrong, falling for false balance. This is especially true when reporting on climate change.

Balanced reporting simply refers to the journalistic standard of fairly and proportionately representing all sides in a legitimate debate. This strongly applies to political reporting, where there are often literally two sides, and neither side is objectively right or wrong. Even when one side has the better case, many news outlets take a neutral journalistic stance, simply reporting what each side claims. They relegate taking a side to the editorial and opinion pages, while sticking to the facts in their news pages.

False balance refers to the practice of reporting two or more sides to a controversy as if they are equivalent when they are objectively not. This mostly applies to science reporting, where opinion plays far less of a role than politics. The BBC affirmed in 2014 what critics of mainstream science reporting have been saying for decades – good science journalism does not present all sides in a balanced way, but rather reports different views in a proportional way, depending on the consensus of scientific opinion. That is a far more accurate way to report science news.

So, if 99.9% of geologists and other scientists accept the consensus interpretation of the scientific evidence that plate tectonics is the only valid scientific theory regarding the dynamics of the Earth’s crust, science journalists should not feel obligated to report on the alternate theory of the hollow Earthers every time they report on a related news item. They also do not have to mention, every time they show a NASA photo or video of a spherical Earth, that there are those who contend the Earth is actually flat.

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Jul 31 2018

The Weaponizing of Fake News

I encounter a range of opinions regarding the current state of politics and misinformation. At one extreme are those who argue for what I think is a false equivalence – politicians have always lied, the news has always been fake, there is nothing to see here. At the other end are those who argue that social media has changed everything.

I think reality is somewhere in the middle. Lying politicians and biased journalism have existed as long as there have been politicians and journalism. But social media has fundamentally changed the dynamic, and we have yet to adapt to the new world we have created.

This appears to primarily be a problem in societies that are based on open democracy. Ironically our freedoms have been weaponized against us. Russia interfering with the 2016 election is only the most obvious example, and is perhaps not the worst or most pernicious.

The Role of Social Media

While social media is a fantastic tool for communication and accessing information, it has some vulnerabilities. Traditional media had to build a brick-and-mortar infrastructure in order to have societal penetration, and that infrastructure was often built over years. This model favored, at least to an extent, quality control. If a news outlet was persistently wrong, or “tabloid” in its style, it was relegated to the supermarket checkout lane.

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May 07 2018

The Waking Dead

Amid a continuous stream of terrible science news reporting, this one stands out from MSN: ‘Miracle’ Boy Wakes After Parents Sign Organ Donation Papers and Days of Being Brain-Dead. Actually the story is based on a local Fox news report. Everyone involved in these stories should be placed in the journalists penalty box.

This is a standard fluff narrative that comes up regularly – the person who wakes unexpectedly from a coma, or better yet, after being declared brain dead. There is a common pattern to the stories – you never get enough details to know what actually happened, but what details you do get do not hang together.

The basic facts of the case are this, 13-year-old Trenton McKinley of Mobile Alabama was injured in a dune buggy accident. He suffered severe head injury. Apparently his prognosis was so poor at one point that the doctors talked with his parents about organ donation, and they agreed that if his heart stopped they would go through the organ donation procedure. In other words, they would harvest his organs.

However, before that happened Trenton began to show signs of improvement. He started to move, and then to become conscious. He is now in rehab, able to talk, and to walk with assistance.

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May 04 2018

Be Wary of Dubious Brain Cancer Study

We have yet another example of a scientifically complex study being mangled by the mainstream media, who simply do not have the chops to provide an adequate analysis. The Telegraph reports:

Fresh fears have been raised over the role of mobile phones in brain cancer after new evidence revealed rates of a malignant type of tumour have doubled in the last two decades.

They further report about the study:

They analysed 79,241 malignant brain tumours over 21 years, finding that cases of GBM in England have increased from around 1,250 a year in 1995 to just under 3,000.

This sounds alarming. The mainstream reporting was not horrible (unlike some of the fearmongering by advocacy groups) but was completely inadequate to really put this study into context. The Science Media Center put together analysis from various experts, and the entire page is worth a read. It is a good demonstration of how to really analyze a scientific paper.

The Telegraph article does point out that this new study is looking at brain cancer incidence only, and did not present any data that correlates the risk of brain cancer with any specific risk factor. The paper only speculates about possible causes, including the rise in cell phone use. But that is just scratching the surface.

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Mar 19 2018

Gullible Reporting About ESP on CBS

In the 1970s and 80s belief in the paranormal was the most common target of skeptics. Topics like extrasensory perception (ESP), astrology, and faith healing were at the top of the list of skeptical concerns. In the last 30 years skepticism has evolved quite a bit, and while we never stopped being watchdogs on paranormal beliefs and other pseudosciences, they did mostly fade  into the background. Other topics, such as science denial and the rise of fake news, took center stage.

But history has shown that there is often a cycle to such things. Interest in UFOs has waxed and waned over the years, for example, never going away completely, but fading and then rising again to prominence as a new generation discovers the topic.

Still, we do like to think we are making some progress through exposure and education. We have tried to interact frequently with the press so that at least the skeptical point of view will get better exposure when such topics are addressed. One solid victory was when the BBC announced they will no longer follow a pattern of false balance when dealing with science denial – putting a crank up against the consensus of scientific opinion as if they were equal.

A recent episode of CBS Sunday Morning about ESP, however, was worse than false balance, it was a throwback to the early days of credulous reporting about the paranormal with only token skepticism. Not that token skepticism was gone, but it has become more rare, especially from a major network or news outlet.

The piece, by Erin Moriarty, is a complete journalistic fail. It was the kind of piece we used to see thirty plus years ago before the skeptical movement had any traction. It is a perfect example of what we call token skepticism – a piece that is utterly gullible except for a very brief talking head skeptic who says something generic, like, “There is no scientific evidence to support this.” The token skepticism is immediately negated, however, by some response from the true-believer, a response the skeptic is never allowed to respond to in turn.

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Feb 27 2018

GMOs and the Revenge of Lysenko

A recent study finds that Russia is using its social media propaganda methods to stir up controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Why would Russia want to do this? This partly goes back to Lysenko.

But perhaps the real story here is the mechanism that Russia is using to stir the anti-GMO pot – weaponizing the free flow of information and ideas.

The Revenge of Lysenko

If you recall from my previous article, Lysenko was essentially a crank scientist who used his political influence to decimate the Soviet agricultural industry. It is a great historical example of the triumph of ideology over science, and an important cautionary tale. Continue Reading »

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Feb 12 2018

Significant but Irrelevant – Study on Correcting False Information

A study from a few months ago is making the rounds due to recent write ups in the media, including Scientific American. The SA titles reads: “Cognitive Ability and Vulnerability to Fake News: Researchers identify a major risk factor for pernicious effects of misinformation.”

The study itself is: ‘Fake news’: Incorrect, but hard to correct. The role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions. In the paper the authors conclude:

“The current study shows that the influence of incorrect information cannot simply be undone by pointing out that this information was incorrect, and that the nature of its lingering influence is dependent on an individual’s level of cognitive ability.”

So it is understandable that reporters took that away as the bottom line. In fact, in an interview for another news report on the finding one of the authors is quoted:

“Our study suggests that, for individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability, the influence of fake news cannot simply be undone by pointing out that this news was fake,” De keersmaecker said. “This finding leads to the question, can the impact of fake news can be undone at all, and what would be the best strategy?”

The problem is, I don’t think this is what the study is saying at all. I think this is a great example of confusing statistically significant with clinically significant. It is another manifestation of over-reliance on p-values, and insufficient weight given to effect size.

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May 08 2017

Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated Survey

vaccine meme1One of the basic skills of critical thinking in our modern society is, first, the realization that not all scientific studies are created equal. Studies range from worthless to rigorous, and not all “studies” are even actual studies, but rather just surveys or reviews of prior research.

Further, it’s helpful to be able to look at a study and evaluate it for basic issues of quality. There will often be technical details that only an expert in the field will recognize, and statistical analysis is a specialty unto itself. But basic research concepts could apply to any study and give you at least an idea of how reliable it is. There are other generic factors as well, such as the quality of the journal in which it was published, the funding source, the history of the researchers, and whether or not the paper was ever retracted. Finally, any individual study needs to be put into the context of the overall literature, and not just cherry-picked.

Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated Study

Recently the anti-vaccine community has been sending around a study on social media that purports to show that vaccinated children have a higher rate of neurodevelopmental disorders (NDD) than unvaccinated children. This contradicts a wealth of prior studies that show that the only health difference between vaccinated and less vaccinated (fewer vaccines and/or given later) is that the less vaccinated children have more infections, especially vaccine-preventable diseases.  Continue Reading »

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Apr 21 2017

Some Brain Science Hype

scalp-EEGTwo recent neuroscience news items in The Independent represent exactly the problem with bad science journalism today and the tendency to overhype incremental studies.

Brain-Machine Interface

Here’s the first:

Device that can literally read your mind invented by scientists. An ‘easily operated’ machine linked to a smartphone could be ready within five years.

Um, no.  I have be writing about this technology for years, because it is genuinely interesting and I think is a technology to watch. Several labs have made significant progress in brain-machine interfaces. The idea is that you read the electrical activity of the brain with either scalp electrodes or brain surface electrodes. Scientists have developed software that interprets the EEG patterns and learns to correlate them with the thoughts or intentions of the subject. The subject, in turn, learns to control their mental activity to affect the EEG output.

Here is where the technology stands: With brain surface electrodes, you get a much greater resolution of EEG activity. The software has progressed to the point that monkeys can control a robotic arm with sufficient subtlety to feed themselves.

With humans we have mostly used scalp electrodes, which have a more blurry signal. Even with these people have learned to control robots or control a cursor on a computer.

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Apr 07 2017

$100 Million? It’s Going to Take More Than That

Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of the board of eBay, speaks at the eBay Developer's Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, Wednesday, June 13, 2007. (Photo by JB Reed/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is one of the world’s richest men. He recently announced that his philanthropic investment firm will dedicate $100 million to combat the “global trust deficit.” By this he means the current lack of trust in information and institutions born by the age of misinformation, fake news, and alternative facts.

I agree that this is a phenomenon that needs to be studied and tackled, but I hope that he is just getting started with the $100 million, because it’s going to take a lot more than that. I also don’t think we can rely on a few philanthropists to fix this problem.

As an aside I find it historically interesting that the internet boom lead to a crop of very young very rich people, not only Omidyar but also Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg and others. Omidyar notes that:

“We sort of skipped the ‘regular rich’ and we went straight to ‘ridiculous rich’,” he said of his overnight fortune.

“I had the notion that, okay, so now we have all of this wealth, we could buy not only one expensive car, we could buy all of them. As soon as you realise that you could buy all of them, none of them are particularly interesting or satisfying.”

So we have a crop of young bored billionaires looking to change the world. I think that’s cool.  I hope they succeed.

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