My issues with the media
(how they portray scientific statistics)
Statistics is the method we use to try to ensure that the results of studies are as correct and as true as possible. They tell us whether the results are LIKELY to have been obtained by chance or not, then we can make inferences from there. Unfortunately, in many of the cases I have come across, the media forget the LIKELY part. And in the very main stream media sometimes they neglect to mention any statistics or research methodology at all. I am going to use an article to provide as an example of the things I think could be imporved in the reporting of science in the news.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16811042 is an incredibly interesting article about the brain and the inner ‘voice’ we hear in our heads but there are a few issues to consider.
To begin with I have a little issue with the title of the article; “Decodes ‘internal voice'”. I feel that the article uses this very hard hitting head line simply to get people to read the article (as you do when writing the news). But I don’t feel it is accurately describes what the study is about at all. I don’t feel that the study in any way claimes to have ‘decoded’ the inner voice but instead is has unearthed a part of the system that is perhaps responsible for the inner voice. Although the title may be an exaggeration, the role of the media is to get the public’s attention and the article does go on to explain the real basics of the study so it can pobably be forgiven in this instance.
The next thing that bugs me about this article and many others like it is that there are virtually no numbers in it! From this article we know nothing about the experiment apart from the descriptive author’s descriptive interpretation of the study (with a couple of ‘choice quotes’ to make it sound conviencing). There is no mention of the significance levels to tell us how we should be treating the results of the data. I can’t even find a couple of means in there! Perhaps it is because the general population is less interested in the numbers than those that have been forced to undergo deadly stats lectures, but if you don’t tell people they will never be interested or understand.
Although this article mentions that there were 15 participants and that they were undergoing surgery for epilepsy it does not mention the potential consequences of this. As epilepsy is a disorder of certain aspects of the brain (http://www.epilepsy.com/Epilepsy/epilepsy_brain) it is important to consider whether the conclusions of the study could be automatically transfered to the rest of the human population (something which the actual study probably addresses but the article doesn’t).
Finally something that this article does (as do many others) that disappoints me is that it doesn’t tell you about the whole scientific process. This article http://www.scidev.net/en/features/how-journalism-can-hide-the-truth-about-science.html
explains very well that the auidence of the media sometimes aren’t told about the times when science is not correct and so are disappointed/angry when the experiments don’t go to plan. Also as soon as they hear something they want it and don’t realise there is the need for further trials/experiments/further development. Another very important point that I think this artice smacks directly on the head is the media’s use of the word ‘breakthrough’. The use of this word often makes scientific advances sound sudden and surprising instead of the reality of the months/years of hard work of many people. Although this is less of a serious incident in reporting science I feel it almost belittles the work of scientists which can be dangerous in terms of the respect and trust the public has in their results.
Despite all of these points, I would like to end this blog by saying that although I think articles like this perhaps could do with a little more science jargon I applaud the optimism that news like this brings. The idea that perhaps one day we will have a device that could help a person who has lost all other means to communicate with their loved ones (and the rest of the world) makes a VERY welcome change to the majority of the news we get to hear: riots, murders, drugs and theives.