The Scientific Study That Cried Wolf

The past couple of Friday Links posts have linked to several worry porn articles about the grave dangers of eggs, toast, bacon and even the horrifying dangers of... exercise.

Readers, do you ever get the impression that all these articles and studies have jumped the shark? The fear and loathing in our media is beyond all reason, and it's all but verging onto unintentional satire. The Onion can now take stories directly from reality (Toast Causes Cancer!) and produce effortless parody without changing a word.

Our entire reality has become self-parodying, at least when it comes to new things to worry about.

These studies, and the panicked general media articles reporting them, clearly must fill a need. They must serve some purpose, otherwise we wouldn't see a near-infinite supply of them offering more and more new things to fear with each passing year.

Of course, when I say these studies "fill a need," I'm referring to the media's need... to increase revenues and profits. Remember our first principles: the media's purpose is not to inform you. It is to capture your attention. And then profit. Never forget this.

In the sense of helping us understand our reality, however, these articles most certainly do not fill a need. The "information" in these articles may capture our attention and our clicks, but it is useless in the extreme. In fact, if these studies are intended to help us live safer lives, they are ironically working to achieve the exact opposite end.

Which brings us to the central point of this post: the scientific study publishing establishment--and the media outlets cynically trumpeting its most outlandish and attention-grabbing studies--have together become the boy who cried wolf. We've heard "wolf!" cried so many times that we're soon going to stop listening. Heck, most of us already have.

But someday, there will be a real wolf. A study that, perhaps, we might actually want to pay attention to. But we won't, because we've all already heard the cry of "wolf!" from thousands of reports on "death from ice cream" and "cancer from toast." All the years of worry porn have inured us to some future message that will matter.

So what happens when there's a real link between cancer and some activity? And when I say real, I mean statistically substantial, replicable, without use of the denominator fallacy* and not designed to dupe innumerate readers. What happens when we become so inured as a culture to these ridiculous junk science headlines and pseudo-intellectual fulminations from the media, that we just stop paying attention? And then a real warning comes out?

Makes you think.

* Denominator fallacy: Imagine a hypothetical study that finds a higher risk of cancer linked to some previously harmless food, citing data indicating that a sample of people eating this food show an incidence of cancer of 0.0002%, compared to a control group which has a 0.0001% risk. The media (idiotically and innumerately) reports this as "Food X Linked to a 100% Greater Risk of Cancer!!!", a statement that, while technically true in some sense, is deeply misleading, as both numbers are effectively zero (one ten-thousandths of a percentage point is a one-in-a-million chance), particularly when compared to the gauntlet of actual risks we run when living a perfectly normal life. The recent "bacon causes cancer" study offered numerate readers a textbook example of the denominator fallacy.

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Lauren said...

As someone who has worked in research translation at a university, I can say that trying to make the public aware of what national research funding achieves is a really tricky task. Anyone who has asked a PhD student what they're studying knows that there are two ways to answer that: the elevator pitch, which is an art, and the answer the researcher finds intellectually accurate, but which confuses and alienates the listener. Universities and governments thus employ people who know both the field of research and how to write for the public to do research translation. And then the newspaper chops and changes, extracts and extrapolates, and suddenly an honest chunk of work becomes just another "wolf". A lot of it boils down to the fact that very few people understand how to interpret numbers - not Joe Average, and not Josephine Journalist. Some inflations/conflations are deliberately sensationalist, but many are the result of the sales imperative you write about meeting incomprehension, and breeding ignorant misunderstanding.

Anonymous said...

In a previous life I worked at a Government Agency that to boil it right down to the nitty gritty paid a university to grow & distribute marijuana (well before it was legalized anywhere). That single sentence was enough to turn 90% of the people (media) who knew about it to pitch a fit.

Meanwhile, if you want to scientifically study how marijuana helps with the side effects of cancer treatments - you probably need very specific THC amounts, etc. (not random crap from your neighbors illegal grow lab.)

So having the Government involved is probably beneficial.

chacha1 said...

I feel that the U.S. media and the 24-hour news cycle are eating themselves and eventually nearly everyone will stop paying attention. When most "news" is distributed via social media posts, you have to assume that most people simply don't care about the completeness, let alone the accuracy, of the information they are consuming and sharing.

Ultimately I don't care how stupid it all gets, because I will be dead before it destroys civilization. (My misanthropic side thinks that C.M. Kornbluth's story "The Marching Morons" may be an accurate picture of the late 21st century.) In the meantime I am reading less and less material that is not in the form of a book, and I never *watch* the "news."