Monday, January 12, 2009

Today's do-it-yourself tip

Hey, in these tough economic times, everybody wants to save a little money. So here are some ways you can fix those annoying science stories at home, without having to call in an expert or spend years and years taking those pesky methods courses. Today, we're going to spike a paragraph from an AP medical writer!

First, you want to spread some Context over the work surface:

Sam Silverman is co-captain of his high school football team — a safety accustomed to bruising collisions. But that’s nothing compared with the abuse he gets for being a vegetarian.

Be sure to wear your eye protection when handling those anecdotal ledes, kids! Now, reach in with the pliers until you feel something round and lumpy:

... Silverman may feel like a vegetable vendor at a butchers’ convention, but about 367,000 other kids are in the same boat, according to a recent study that provides the government’s first estimate of how many children avoid meat. That’s about 1 in 200.

Got it? That's the "nut graf," which explains why you've been reading three paragraphs about somebody you've never heard of. Rotate the nut graf until you find a "relative clause" that tells you why the story is interesting -- that one about "the government's first estimate of how many children avoid meat." Now see if you can find a black-and-white wire that leads to the Trend:

... Anecdotally, adolescent vegetarianism seems to be rising, thanks in part to YouTube animal slaughter videos that shock the developing sensibilities of many U.S. children. But there isn’t enough long-term data to prove that, according to government researchers.

Did you make sure the power was turned off at the circuit breaker? Great! Now pick up your baseball bat and hit the AP upside the head with it.

First thing you want to do is dismantle the "attribution." Go ahead and remove "according to government researchers." If you applied enough context, you probably remember that this is "the government's first estimate," so there's not only not "enough" long-term data, there's no long-term data at all! You have a single data point. Pretend it's a picture of a car: Is it going faster or slower than it was yesterday? So you can say on your own that nothing's been proven, but we still need to back up a little farther.

Survey data don't "prove" anything. They never have, and they never will. Social science (that's what surveys about teen eating habits are) is in the business of probability; if you're interested in "proof," go to seminary. But we're not dealing with probabilistic evidence here. The AP says that "anecdotally," something seems to be happening, but it doesn't provide anything to judge what "anecdotal" means. In a way, that's beside the point; anecdotal evidence is all pretty much the same, whether it comes from the writer's nephew or an impassioned editorial in the high school newspaper or something you saw on CNN last week. It not only isn't proof, it isn't even probability.

And "thanks in part to YouTube videos" is (you didn't take the goggles off, did you?) simply fictional. It's an objectivity failure -- not because it puts some thumb on the ideological scales, but because it's completely made up. There's no indication that "exposure to YouTube" has even been conceptualized, let alone measured, let alone compared with anything that might in some way allow a causal inference.

OK! We're ready to take our paragraph out and throw it at a wire editor! Most newspapers -- this being the age of shovelware and all -- seem to have simply run with the AP's suggested hed, but the folks at the Lawrence Journal-World decided to improve it on their own:
Number of young vegetarians on the rise
No, you can't fix it by adding attribution. The story doesn't say that, and it doesn't say that "study says" that, for the simple reason that no known evidence on God's green earth allows you to say anything, either way, about what the "number of young vegetarians" is doing.

One hopes they're teaching better habits at the local J-school.* Come to that, one hopes they're teaching better habits at J-schools across the universe.

* Can we be heretical for a sec? Lawrence is in many ways a much cooler town than Columbia, though the J-school will be hopelessly inferior unto the end of time amen.



Blogger Strayhorn said...

Huh. I stopped reading at the word "Anecdotally" and would have pressed the "delete" button on my editing queue.

As my friends in M&E like to say, the plural of "anecdote" is not "data."

Or, as Bullwinkle would say, two wrongs don't make a right. Except in jazz.

8:30 AM, January 13, 2009  

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