The Media’s Misinterpretation of Statistics
Scientific research and the media go hand in hand. Without one another, both are severely restricted. For researchers, what good is a ground-breaking discovery if you have no way to get your findings to the general public? The scientific community rely heavily upon the media for this reason.
Firstly lets discuss why are statistics important. Statistics quantify information, and make it more easily understood. They allow a higher level of detail to be portrayed, and add credibility to research. With this in mind, lets look at two statements.
- Some university students drive to university.
- On average, 50% of university students drive to university. **
Adding the percentage value transforms the statement from common sense, to something relevant and meaningful. Statistics are an invaluable component in scientific research, and one that must be given considerable thought.
**Disclaimer: This is purely for illustrative purposes, the actual number is likely to be different.
Statistics can be confusing however, and as such it is vital for them to be reported accurately. A complication is that the media will often not fully understand details of the research. Resultantly, it is important that research is presented both accurately, and at a level that can be understood. This responsibility falls squarely upon the researcher. Given these requirements are fulfilled by researcher, accurate reporting statistics is the responsibility of the media. Journalists hold an important role in communicating to the public, and must ensure they present details accurately.
Often it is not the actual statistics that are debated, but the conclusions made from the research. Scientists are accustomed to making conclusions based on research, but this is a skill less practised in journalism. This is the case in the article “Can breastfeeding halt obesity – or is the media misreading the research?”.
A recent study found that 32 percent of babies are obese, a shocking statistic. The original article attributed this to a combination of bad food, and eating solids too early. Several media sources including MSNBC and AOL Health, came to the conclusion that mothers should breastfeed rather than use formula. Whilst the statistics were reported accurately, the resulting conclusions were anything but. Given that the general public are far more likely to see the article from the press than the original study, this is worrying. In this case, misinforming the general public on a large scale is the outcome – obviously undesirable. Or is it?
Political tacticians are not in search of scholarly truth or even simple accuracy. They are looking for ammunition to use in the information wars. Data, information, and knowledge do not have to be true to blast an opponent out of the water.
In my research on the topic, I came across the above quote. It introduces the concept that misreporting statistics, or making incorrect conclusions may not be accidental. There are many situations where adjusting conclusions could be done deliberately for personal reasons. For example, if the owner of a newspaper had a family member who was the CEO of a fast food company. Directing the attention away from the bad food causing obesity in babies and using a scapegoat (baby formula) would be beneficial for the newspaper owner. Far-fetched? Maybe, but its definitely something to think about.
 Goldin, R. (2011). Can breastfeeding halt obesity – or is the media misreading the research?. STATS.org
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