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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1999 > Jan > Jan 30

Some Science Reporting Misleading - UPI Science

From: Ed Stewart <ufoindex@jps.net>
Date: Sat, 30 Jan 1999 11:59:03 -0800
Fwd Date: Sat, 30 Jan 1999 19:14:25 -0500
Subject: Some Science Reporting Misleading - UPI Science


UPI Science News

WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- A media watchdog group has issued
its "dubious data awards" for 1998, listing as its top example
research published in November that strongly suggested
scientists had proven beyond doubt that Thomas Jefferson sired
offspring by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

That's simply not so, said David Murray, director of research
for the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS). The research,
published in Nature, strongly suggested that Jefferson could
have fooled around with the slave, as rumored for 200 years, but
it was anything but definitive.

Murray said the story's headline declared that "Jefferson
fathered slave's last child," while the article was full of
caveats. It pointed out that DNA evidence wags a finger at
Jefferson but also makes clear that the allegations wouldn't
stand up in court.

Nevertheless, most media outlets ignored the caveats in the
scientific article and ran the Nature headline as fact, said
Murray. For example, The Des Moines Register bannered:
"Adulterer on Mt. Rushmore."

National Public Radio announced that "proof is finally in. The
president not only did have an illicit sexual affair, he
fathered at least one child with his lover. DNA testing has
ended that debate."

And the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot bannered, "DNA Link: Paternity
Proved."

Such dubious reporting is further eroding the public's plunging
confidence in the media, said Glenn Sparks, a Purdue University
researcher who studies the press and its impact.

"It's much easier to remember headlines than the qualifiers in
stories," added Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell University
psychologist and expert on why people have a tendency to believe
in almost anything. "People are too easily misled."

He is the author of the book, "Why We Know What Isn't So."

Murray said the result of such "recklessness" - epitomized by
coverage of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky - is
that millions don't know what to believe, so they're simply
tuning out, which has led to a crescendo of cynicism and apathy
starkly evident in the low ratings for the impeachment hearings.

A recent survey of 3,000 Americans for the American Society of
Newspaper Editors found that 80 percent of respondents feel some
stories get lots of play simply because they are exciting.

STATS, a non-partisan, non-profit group, cited a study
suggesting that Americans are the most unfaithful spouses in the
entire world, at 50 percent, far ahead of the stereotypically
adventurous French at only 36 percent. It also concluded "the
French do it most often, the Americans for the longest, while
the Thais prefer to wait for their honeymoon."

Bob Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public
Affairs, STATS's parent group, told UPI that few news outlets
pointed out that the research was questionable since it done by
the condom manufacturer Durex, and basic scientific methods were
ignored.

Only 14 countries were surveyed, the impressive sample size of
10,000 was self-selected, representing only those with the time
or inclination to fill out and return a questionnaire, and it
focused only on "sexually active" respondents, which Durex
defined as people 16 to 45.

"It shouldn't take a Starr report to remind journalists that sex
doesn't stop at age 45, though the cost may increase," STATS
said in its report.

Some other dubious data awards went to:

-- Claims that a Martian meteorite contained evidence of
primitive biological activity, which was reported in Science,
another top-ranked research journal. The conclusion was given
further credibility when NASA held a news conference to discuss
it. No wonder the Dayton Daily News blared: "Mars Mania: Clinton
Plans Summit." The Rocky Mountain News declared: "Earth Abuzz at
Mars News: 'Prove Us Wrong,' NASA Researchers Challenge."

"Well, OK," Murray said. He said that Science now concedes "most
researchers agree that the case for Martian life is shakier than
ever."

-- The Republican National Committee's charge that Vice
President Al Gore had donated only .0017 percent of his income
to charity. The true figure was 17 percent. STATS also noted
that Gore also needs to bone up on his math. He asserted that
2.7 trillion e-mail messages were sent last year. But the
Commerce Department says 100 million people accessed the
Internet in 1998, which if Gore's statement was right would
amount to an average of 27,000 e-mails received by every man,
woman and child. Not possible, Murray said.

-- A Science News article on fat and body asserting that "women
who had gained 22 pounds or more since age 18 ran an increased
risk of dying." Not so, STATS said. "Their risk of dying is
still 100 percent.

What was required to make the statement comparatively useful
would be time-related information, like the risk of dying by age
50."

-- Many media outlets ran stories or ads on a "miracle" drug
called Vitamin O that supposedly can treat everything from mild
fatigue to life-threatening disease. Fact is, Vitamin O is
"ordinary saltwater."

Gilovich said scientific evidence is often "fiendish and
presents evidence that is messy and complicated and easy to
misread."

Lichter said the public is "caught between the hype and the
scare stories."

Political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia
said careless reporting has him worried.

"I've got 600 people in my politics class, and they think it's
outrageous and pointless to read a daily newspaper," he told
UPI. "This is a very cynical generation and they don't believe
much of what newspapers print."

Lichter said people "need to take everything in the media with a
grain of salt, but science reporting requires a shaker of salt."

Not only do reckless reports feed cynicism, but they're
dangerous as well, he added.

"You get a study that says something causes cancer, then another
saying it doesn't. If people see screaming headlines, they stop
worrying about what they do eat because they think everything
causes cancer. The twin dangers are, people believe what they
shouldn't, or they won't believe anything because they don't
know what to believe," Lichter said.

STATS was created in 1994 by Lichter to keep track of erroneous
and overblown media claims at the behest of foundations and
lobbyists on both sides of the political spectrum. It does
projects for conservative and liberal groups alike.

"Our idea is to make the media better, not to beat up on it," he
said. "But it's powerful, and has a powerful effect on the
public. If journalists don't work harder to weed out the good
science from the spurious, and take time to understand it, the
industry is in trouble. But so are the American people."

(Written by Mushie Bolgla)


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