Thursday, May 14, 2009

Science journalism: Dr. Evil edition

Are there worse things you can do to science than the run-of-the-mill "Men and Women: We're Still Different" stuff you see on the wires? Yes. And it's starting to look like a habit at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network.

When the tale above appeared in the No. 3 slot this afternoon, it sort of rang a bell -- kind of like the second story shown here, which was the No. 3 story last Friday. (It says rather a lot that when these stories fall off the homepage, they end up in the "politics" section.) Fox seems to have developed a new and fairly productive way of ferreting out important stories:

1) Troll the NIH for abstracts of studies that reflect the Wrong Sort of Values
2) Turn hotshot writer loose with lots of adjectives
3) You report, readers decide!

Just another fine example of the mentality of this administration. Cut spending on medicare and ss for our older people but give a lot of welfare to people who can still work but choose not to. And by all means, lets send more and more money to other countries for important matters like this.

Why go all the way to Argentina when all you have to do is hang out at MSNBC

Expect more of these wasteful programs as President Obama massively expands our government. This is why I oppose Obama and his Administrations views.

For those of you who feel strongly about this gigantic waste of money, perhaps you would like to let the study's author know how you feel, as I did.

Don't get things wrong. Fox likes science just fine, as long as it's space exploration, robots, pilotless attack aircraft -- you know, real science. But this other stuff ...

Government researchers are spending more than $400,000 in taxpayer money to hit the bars in Argentina.

The National Institutes of Health are paying researchers to cruise six bars in Buenos Aires to find out why gay men engage in risky sexual behavior while drunk -- and just what can be done about it.

You get the idea? We're out to curb "dangerous liaisons!" It's a two-year study, so we'll have "as many as 730 nights on the town."

Researchers plan to interview dozens of bar patrons and proprietors to help develop the on-site intervention programs -- and they mean to be exact. (Yes, the NIH appreciates it when you know what you're talking about.)

"Venue patrons will also undergo a brief quantitative assessment to gather descriptive data on sexual behavior and substance use among this sample," the study's abstract reads.

In layman's terms, that means they're asking drinkers to keep tabs on their quaffs and their quarry
(No it doesn't -- although Fox might have imported some elite news professionals from the British press, where you're more likely to find "quaffs," and it's as likely they're asking for self-report data on general sex/drug/booze habits as for keeping tabs on the "quarry"); fortunately for their more modest subjects, it's not a qualitative test too. (Jesus. Did you clowns even bother to read the abstract you linked to? The one that says "qualitative study consists of site observations of 6 venues"? Or do you not understand the distinction?)

An NIH official said that funds approved for the project include $275,000 for direct costs and an additional $125,000 in indirect costs, but would not elaborate. Though could not confirm the median price of cervezas in Buenos Aires, that should leave a lot of money for tips.

Get the idea? We're going to find all the NIH grant money awarded to a particular institution, then comb the titles for something that looks like it's wasted on foreigners. And show off our knowledge of Spanish in the bargain! (How Fox overlooked "Female Condom Use in South African College Students," one will never know.) Hence today's earth-shattering exclusive:

The federal government is spending $2.6 million to make sure prostitutes in China drink less on the job. (Easier and cheaper to leave that part up to the cops or the pimps. What the study wants to find out is whether it's possible to develop a program that induces people to cut down on risky behavior when they seem to be ignoring the laws or policies.)

That's the goal of a five-year study, bankrolled by the National Institutes of Health, designed to help lower HIV infections among China's "female sex workers," who are referred to in the study as "FSWs." (Yes, grant writers use the jargon of their craft. If it would make Fox feel better about the whole thing, we could call them "slinky Oriental dragon ladies," or "SODLs." Or "Harveys the Six-Foot Rabbit.")

Researchers will visit 100 houses of ill repute -- a whole hamlet of harlots -- to collect data on 700 prostitutes and 150 pimps and madams, referred to as "gatekeepers" in the study's sterile abstract.

Hamlet of harlots! Just hang on a few grafs and you'll get to the "bawds from Beihai." Somebody's been brushing up their Shakespeare (or borrowing the thesaurus again). Not that abstracts are supposed to be, oh, Shakespeare. For NIH grants, they're supposed to sum the project up for the reviewers.

Which sort of gets us to the point, doesn't it? These things don't go to the feminist studies faculty for review. Ward Churchill does not fund R01s. They're reviewed by people who do science, and those people are picky. These two projects come from a psychiatric hospital and a med school* -- neither one being the sort of institution known as a hotbed of liberalism. Both have start dates in fall '08, which allows the Fox readership to argue about whether they're Obama's fault or attributable to Nancy Pelosi and her satanic brood but doesn't tell you much about when they were approved, much less when they were first submitted.

None of which is pertinent to the folks at Fox, of course. Fox isn't interested in whether we might learn something useful about the circumstances under which people do more and less dumb stuff, or whether "doing dumb stuff" might have similar characteristics whether it's done in bars in Argentina* or airport restrooms in Minnesota. It wants you to know that liberals are wasting money on foreigners (who all have hopelessly bad habits anyway) because scientists are too stupid to figure out the obvious: People do dumb stuff when they're drunk!

Please don't miss the larger point. Science journalism isn't very good, but most of it isn't malificent. Fox journalism, on the other hand, is -- oh, how to put this? -- corrupt: anti-science and pro-stupid, not to mention nativist, pro-disease and a range of other unseemly traits, all in the service of its political masters. You can fix stupid, or at least you can try, but you can't fix evil.

* Couple blocks south of Motor City Brewing, turn left, can't miss it. I don't know the PI, but apparently we shop at the same IRB.
** Wouldn't it have been cool if he'd gotten an R21 to do the study in Venezuela? You can just see the little brains exploding.



Anonymous MelayuBoleh said...

yess agree with you

Melayu Boleh

6:02 AM, May 15, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Fox is truly distressing.

10:42 AM, May 15, 2009  
Blogger Ben said...

This stuff makes my brain steam. I'd really love it if one day people reported on sex research with more maturity and insight than you'd get from an eight-year-old boy. It's not this bad in the UK yet though, british journalists seem to prefer smutty innuendos to alliteration.

3:16 PM, May 15, 2009  
Anonymous Bill Horne said...

Although I agree that Fox's coverage is often driven be a hidden agenda, I'm worried about your apparent assumption that their criticism of a certain study is, ipso facto, wrong. Frankly, I resent your inference that those not trained in scientific discipline are not entitled to criticize their government's support of scientific research.

Your criticism of Fox assumes that it's OK to study the habits of whores in foreign countries, using taxpayer dollars. Moreover, the tone of your blog indicates to me that you expect me to agree that Fox's coverage of the studies, even if stilted, is inherently evil. Neither is true, and I think you do your readers a disservice by such arrogation.

12:44 AM, May 16, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

To clarify a couple points: No, agreeing with the host is not a condition of visiting this site (or of commenting). I'm in favor of public debate, and I'm probably on record somewhere as saying you don't need a degree in a subject to criticize or comment on the subject. One of the functions of journalism is to enable debate.

That doesn't mean all debate is equal or all questions are equal. What makes Fox anti-science and pro-stupid is its tendency to reduce science questions to ideology questions. As a taxpayer, I expect the NIH reviewers to ask science-type questions: Does this proposal address a significant health question? Will this research design answer that question? Are the benefits in line with the costs? If those answers are yes, it doesn't matter whether we're studying the habits of "whores in foreign countries" or the Little Sisters of Hoboken.

Doing journalism about science doesn't require an advanced degree, but it does, eventually, require meeting the subject on its own terms (so does journalism about music or baseball). On the evidence, it looks like Fox has decided that the most salient aspect of health research is ideological purity. And I do think that's inherently evil.

11:33 AM, May 16, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm new to this blog, have a science degree, and am a libertarian who opposes government funding of scientific research, period. Both studies that support and oppose Fox News' or anyone else's agenda. Scientists shouldn't have to feel like they have to feed at the government trough to get the money they need. Government money ALWAYS comes with strings. Just ask any researcher who was looking for money from the Bush administration for any kind of research on teen sexuality....or, for that matter, any education researcher who was looking for bucks to refute No Child Left Behind....

6:47 PM, May 19, 2009  
Blogger John Cowan said...

Anonymous, private grants come with strings too, often very nasty ones like "If your research shows anything negative about our product, you have to suppress it."

6:38 PM, June 08, 2009  

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