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If you were on the Internet yesterday, you likely saw this story on various mainstream media platforms:
When you see a ridiculous story like this, a how to guide to reading it. 1/ https://t.co/nGPR59fJyF
— Bethany S. Mandel (@bethanyshondark) May 17, 2019
The study claims a lot of gross stuff, claiming that Americans use swimming pools instead of a shower and that 40% of Americans pee in the pool. The whole thing sounded strange, which is what led me to read the CBS story in detail. In it I saw the following paragraph:
Sachs Media Group… A poll run by a media group? That’s… strange. So I went over to Google and looked up what they do. Turns out they’re a PR agency, and one of their clients is… Big Chlorine (I didn’t know such a thing existed). After several individuals, myself included, pointed out the glaring conflict of interest of a media group representing the chlorine industry running a “study” on the cleanliness of pools (and therefore, the importance of chlorine), CBS updated its story, and it now reads:
The survey was conducted by Sachs Media Group, a PR firm working on behalf of the Water Quality & Health Council, a group of advisors to the chlorine industry trade association. On its website, Sachs Media Group says it aims to “Improve chlorine’s brand nationwide to pre-empt legislators and regulators from developing policy that promotes chlorine alternatives.”
This is what it takes for journalists to make an attempt to be responsible while reporting about science, they have to be called out on their laziness in public, repeatedly.
The proliferation of reporting about junk science is rampant, and it undermines trust in science and the media alike, in addition to breeding scientific illiteracy among Americans.
In her new book on the data behind parenting choices, Professor Emily Oster writes about the issue,
We see, again and again, aggressive headlines that often overstate the claims of the (often not very good) articles they report on.
Why is this?
One reason is that people seem to love a scary or shocking narrative. ‘Report: Formula-Fed Children More Likely to Drop Out of High School’ is a more clickable headline than ‘Large, Well-Designed Study Shows Small Impacts of Breastfeeding on Diarrheal Diseases.’ This desire for shock and awe interacts poorly with most people’s lack of statistical knowledge. There is no pressure on the media to focus on reporting the ‘best’ studies, since people have a hard time separating the good studies from less-good ones. Media reports can get away with saying ‘A new study shows…’ without saying ‘A new study, with very likely biased results, shows…’ And other than the few of us who get our dander up on Twitter, people are mostly none the wiser.
Yesterday brought news of another egregious scientific blunder exposed as well,
And then, that feeling when, 404 days after submitting your concerns about said study, it gets retracted. https://t.co/aaP6xODw8E
Who can quantify how far that misinfo spread in the >year it took for retraction?
People deserve accurate info about their contraceptive options. https://t.co/o2wO2JSmze
— Chelsea Polis (@cbpolis) May 14, 2019
BuzzFeed reports on the story,
The company claimed that the thermometer successfully predicted fertility in 99.4% of its customers. But the study that it was based on was pulled for selectively using data that made it look good — and undercounting possible unintended pregnancies.
In this case, the study, and the reporting filed later didn’t just mislead people but may have drastically altered the lives of families trying to get pregnant, or trying not to get pregnant.
We hear a great deal about the dangers of the eroding trust in science and the media. If both entities care about repairing it, raising their standards on science reporting would be a great place to start.