Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lies, damned lies...and scientific studies

If ya'll are regular readers of Mes Deaux Cents (and you should be), you know my blogsister often gives the stink eye (or, rather a critical eye) to studies that paint a hopeless picture about black America. Well, if you didn't already know that you are a smart cookie, MDC, here's some vindication.

In "Mad Science: Deconstructing Bunk Reporting in Five Easy Steps," an article in the latest issue of Bitch magazine, writer Beth Skwarecki takes on news reports about scientific studies whose findings seem just a little too confirming of stereotypes.
Some misleading stories come from bad science, where the study authors' conclusions aren't supported by their own data. Others are well-conducted studies whose conclusions mutate upon contact with the mainstream media. Newspapers and websites are prone to playing fast and loose with their reports on studies, often neglecting to reveal salient facts about a study's sample group of methodology.

The fact is that science articles aren't designed to be read by non-scientists. College and grad students in the sciences are trained in how to do it: They review papers and discuss them in journal clubs; learn how to be critical of authors' interpretations (Do the results really mean what they say they mean?). Students also know to look for context for each study, looking up previous papers on the subject, reviewing the authors' previous work, and searching out any evidence of bias that might color a study's findings.

Journalists looking for a quick story, however, do little such research. And in an age where news sites, wire services, and blogs pick up stories with lightening-fast speed, bad research gets around.

Skwarecki looks at this issue through the lens of gender, but the same problems apply when discussing studies about race, nutrition, you name it. The author offers five suggestions for thinking critically when you spot the latest, highly-publicized study. Tips include asking "Do the conclusions fit a little too well with cultural stereotypes?" and "Does the study agree with the headline?"

If you aren't a subscriber to Bitch magazine (and you should be--fyi, the issue that I'm reading isn't the one pictured on the Web site yet.), pick up a copy of The Wired Issue at your local bookstore. This multi-page story is worth reading and clipping, plus there is a great article about combatting the attacks of cyber-terrorists and trolls that stalk women's blogs and Web sites.


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