Media

Dudley Do-Math

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It's particularly important in an information age to consume information critically. That's one of the main messages of It Ain't Necessarily So: How Media Make and Unmake the Scientific Picture of Reality, by David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and S. Robert Lichter. The book analyzes the ways science gets reported by journalists and how such accounts affect public policy. The result is a cautionary tale of how the media, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not, misrepresent science and statistics. Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie talked with co-author David Murray, the director of the Statistical Assessment Service, a D.C.-based nonprofit science and policy think tank.

Q: What's at stake regarding the media's treatment of science?

A: Public policy is increasingly driven by claims of "science." Policies about everything from child-rearing issues to climate change to health risks are responding to or informed by scientific analysis. Both the media and legislators are constantly invoking the authority of science. They're always saying things like, "Researchers find…" or "Studies show…."

But policy makers don't really understand science. Or perhaps more accurately, the way they—and the public at large—hear about scientific findings is through the prism of the media. And people in the media often don't understand science, either.

Q: How does this prism of the media refract scientific findings?

A: There's a handful of patterns. Journalists routinely overstate threats or hazards, or fail to put them in proper perspective. For instance, heart disease kills more women than breast cancer, but you read many more stories about the latter. Those stories end up dictating policy. Certain stories that fit a particular template tend to be the ones that get told, even if they're not, scientifically speaking, the most important or most accurate ones. From the media's perspective, the best story is one that has an easily identifiable victim, a villain, and a hero—Snidely Whiplash is tying Nell to the railroad tracks and Dudley Do-Right saves her just as the train approaches. It's even better if there's a cover-up involved somewhere. Think Erin Brockovich.

Journalists often reduce complexity to certainty. Sometimes that's because of deadline pressures; you can't overestimate the effects of time constraints and ignorance. But journalists also don't mind overstating things if they think it's for a good cause. And if scare stories help sell more papers, that's a bonus.

Q: People have more access than ever before to information. Does that matter?

A: There's good news and bad. There's a growing gulf between what might be called the information-savvy and the information-gullible. If you're savvy, you have more ways of cross-checking information and getting closer to the truth of a situation, of seeing the wires and struts behind the news, so to speak. At the same time, if you don't have access to media beyond the traditional journalistic gatekeepers, you're more vulnerable than ever because the mainstream media have become much better at producing seemingly authoritative accounts.