Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bad Science via the BDR

How, you may ask, does "angry at Wall Street" qualify as a Bad Science hed? We're going to get there, but we're going to take the Birders' Direct Route, which may entail a few twists and turns.

Log fans probably noticed Mark's post yesterday on the "Factoid Acquisition Device": that marvelous human facility that allows for the use of anecdotes to illustrate social or cultural points that your readers (students, trainees, acolytes, consumers) probably ought to be aware of, even if the anecdote at hand -- "Chrysler Imperial" means "please fondle my buttocks" in Hungarian, or something -- is entirely fictional and has been debunked repeatedly.

Like medicine that works but tastes awful, the government bailout of Wall Street may help Main Street families -- but only by causing them considerable discomfort.

What does this have to do with science? We're getting there. (Ar ar ar! Kirtland's Warbler off the port bow! All hands aft to splice the mainbrace!) The FAD is a special case of a more general phenomenon: Stuff that Ought To Be True. "Americans angry at Wall Street" (the hed on the story online is "Americans take out frustrations with Wall Street") presents a slightly different situation: not a specific condition that needs illustrating, but a condition or concern that, to the writer's mind, ought to be true (and might be, any second), even if it isn't true yet. That's where the science connection comes in.

Read the story and you'll note that there's no there there -- more precisely, there's no Main Street there. (OK, there's a retiree from Livonia and an electrician from New Baltimore, but they're two-sentence-each players.) The evidence doesn't support the idea that Americans are angry, because there isn't any evidence. It isn't that kind of story. It's about what Americans ought to be thinking.

That's not why science (or non-science) tales like the bit about whether women talk more than men show up in the paper. But it does suggest why the Politico folks can put a lede like "In a report sure to spark a national conversation on race" on its coverage of the AP survey that got a bunch of coverage yesterday: Americans might not be talking about it yet, but they ought to be. I think, in a way, it might have something to do with some of the concerns you see about media effects -- whether the infamous "Daisy ad" cemented the 1964 election, or whether a single ad actually peels voters away from one candidate and gives them to another (hint: no). An issue gets the image or the reputation of being so important you can't afford to be wrong about it, so ... right or wrong, the story goes in. If you aren't concerned yet, you ought to be.

Overall, this category of stuff isn't necessarily as malevolent as some categories of too-good-to-check-out coverage. That doesn't mean it's good. You aren't making people smarter if you tell them stuff that isn't supported by what's knowable, and there's always a chance you'll get caught.

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