Come in Spinner: Journalistic innumeracy

While most journalists recognised that the trend in recent Federal voting intention polls was probably significant there is one ongoing certainty about media coverage of polling. For many journalists it will be an opportunity to demonstrate a quality they share with many other Australians – innumeracy.

Whatever the outcome of the polls you can be certain that they will be endlessly (well at least until the next one) interpreted. The third last Newspoll showed a surprising line ball result, a result similar to a Morgan poll around the same time, but the second last “showed’ a shift back to the Coalition largely explained, by journalists, as a result of Tony Abbott’s wife defending him with the aid of widespread page one advertorials provided by the News Limited press. The latest is back to line ball.

The simple statistical reality is that many of the poll finding shifts are within the margin of error or, for other reasons, may or may not be significant. Despite this the media generally report them as highly significant. In fact they may be significant for two reasons only: first because the media think they are; and, second because they raise questions about media numeracy.

This is good and bad news for PR people. Good news because you can always get a story written based on a quick question in an omnibus poll which demonstrates something positive about your case or client; bad news because your opponents and competitors can easily do the same thing.

The same applies with scientific literacy which generally ranks along with statistical innumeracy in media coverage. It’s good news for lobby groups and activists who can always get a good run on their latest scare about cancer, the air, the water, food and all the other things which are allegedly killing us – despite the fact that our longevity keeps getting longer – but bad news for the PR people trying to counter them.

Last month Tony Jacques, a Research Fellow at RMIT and publisher of the Issue Outcomes website and newsletter, drew my attention to an article by a crisis manager blogger on the US Food and Drug Administration’s report on a 20 year study of rice and arsenic which illustrates the problems. See here.

The FDA tested some 1200 different rice products over 20 years for arsenic levels and found that in cooked rice they were about 6.7 micrograms – that’s millionths of a gram if you can’t work it out in your head quickly. The FDA pointed out that arsenic occurred naturally but that human activities also add arsenic to the environment. All in all they concluded that there was not more arsenic in rice, nor was it dangerous in the quantities found, but that they were getting better at measuring it.  They ended the report with the obligatory comment about the need for a balanced diet.

None of this discouraged the US ABC News which said the FDA has issued a “troubling warning to limit how much rice we eat” because of the arsenic levels. The ABC story went on to claim the FDA report ‘confirmed’ an earlier Consumer Reports report which said rice products had ‘worrisome levels’ of arsenic. It’s a fairly safe to bet that the ABC story came not from the FDA but from Consumer Reports’ PR efforts to promote their own report.

Some time ago, working for a manufacturing industry client, we had a similar problem with a newspaper which claimed the client was discharging mercury, arsenic and other things to the environment. This combined both innumeracy and scientific illiteracy. The basis for the claim was the company’s EPA discharge licence. Such licences mandate the disclosure of all trace elements in discharges regardless of the quantity. In fact the discharges were so small as to be almost certainly a result of natural background factors and about the concentrations you would get in a bottle of beer, lemonade or anything else with water and other elements in it. The article was the page one lead and we found it almost impossible to rebut, even with the help of the EPA itself.

The MMR controversy in the UK, which spilled over to Australia and other countries was a similar situation when dodgy experiments were presented as demonstrating that the MMR vaccines contributed to autism. As a result many parents were too afraid  to have their children vaccinated  which lead to falling vaccination rates and the rising risk of much greater health problems through disease outbreaks. In Australia then Health Minister, Mike Wooldridge, aided by a campaign through the Department of Health by Royce Communications got the rates back up. In the UK it took years and massive efforts by doctors, governments and researchers to expose the flawed research. Even then the media reported the story as ‘new’ research disproving the former research, rather than dodgy research causing fears magnified by tabloid journalism.

Alan Jones is getting some compulsory remedial journalistic training. The decision has been met with some amusement amongst many journalists, horror among shock jocks, and derision by Jones’s critics. But how much better are most real journalists? Do they understand statistics? Do they understand the significance of replicability in scientific research? Do they pre-suppose that lobby groups are good guys and industry spokespeople are simply trying to hide the truth? Do they actually know when the industry people actually are (and why) hiding the truth around issues such as climate change denialism?

It would be easy to conclude that the reporters are just swamped by too much information and work being processed by too few people on news desks. Equally they may just be suckers for PR people who play to their prejudices or weaknesses. But the evidence – replicated in the data disseminated in the daily news cycle every day – seems to point very strongly to innumeracy and scientific illiteracy.

Of course, whether PR people share that innumeracy and scientific illiteracy, or just exploit it, is another question.