Is Even The Best News Misleading?
A postdoc who writes at The File Drawer makes an astute observation on how academic publications distort reality:
scientific journals favor surprising, interesting, and statistically significant experimental results. When journal editors give preferences to these types of results, it is obvious that more false positives will be published by simple selection effects, and it is obvious that unscrupulous scientists will manipulate their data to show these types of results.
There are a few important points to add to this:
- This observation applies to the news more generally
- It means the non-events that go unreported are often the most significant in shaping the circumstances around us. Silent evidence.
- Lots of times “important’ events that happen with small groups of people become entirely insignificant when conducted with large groups of people.
- Lots of scientific studies can’t have their results replicated by other research teams.
When it comes to reported results, there are two types of mistakes you can make:
- False positives. Ie, “We thought this was true, but it turns out its no big deal”
- False negatives. Ie, “We thought this was nothing, but it turned out to be something”
If only unusual events are reported, then it means people will adopt a lot of overly paranoid boogeyman type thinking about a lot of items that are actually harmless.
The Problems With Health Journalism
If you apply this thinking to the health news, it’s not hard to imagine how the overall message is misleading in the aggregate.
All the “new study finds XXX” articles paint a picture of important points that actually aren’t very important at all.
While I’m an advocate of natural health, it’s just as true in my area. If you wander over to the Natural News, you’ll find plenty of posts about a new study that finds some nutrient is a cure to cancer or some other malady.
……that might not be the case.