September 8th 2001


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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Lessons of the influx of 'boat people'

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Northern Territory election: why the CLP lost

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: SA Parliament debates third Euthanasia Bill

TRADE: Making sense of trade policy

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Bleak House, The gravy boat, The rights of children

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: WA drugs summit takes predictable path

Letters: Teaching infrastructure

Letters: In praise of Serong

COMMENT: Preferential option for the family

QUEENSLAND: Red tape swamps fishing industry - FABA

INTERVIEW: Networking key to success: anti-euthanasia activist

Books: 'The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon', by Anthony Summers

Books: It Ain't Necessarily So, David Murray, Joel Schwartz, S. Robert Lichter

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Books: It Ain't Necessarily So, David Murray, Joel Schwartz, S. Robert Lichter


by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, September 8, 2001

It Ain't Necessarily So
by David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and S. Robert Lichter
Rowman and Littlefield
Rec. price: $50.00

Spin science


Back in 1986 a book appeared entitled The Media Elite by Lichter, Rothman and Lichter. Its thesis was that most of those in the American media were much further to the political left than were average Americans. Many Australians also realise this truth: those in the media tend to be out of touch with the values and aspirations of ordinary Australians. Moreover, those in the media tend to skew the news in the direction they want to take it. This occurs as much in what is (or is not) covered as in the way it is covered.

A new book offers plenty of documentation of this thesis. More specifically, it shows how complex scientific and social research can be skewed, leaving the reader (or viewer) with a very distorted picture of what is actually going on.

The authors offer a number of examples. For instance, child care and its effect on children. One major study claimed to show no adverse effects on children placed in child care. The study, of course, was front-page news in America, and much of the rest of the world. However, a number of problems arise.

First, most of these social science research projects are couched in language like "tentative" or "it appears that ...", etc. Most of these studies say much more research needs to be undertaken to show really clear results. Yet these qualifications are seldom reported in the media.

Second, as the authors note, "all research findings in this area should be viewed with a certain scepticism, simply because it's not easy to interpret infant behaviour". There is a fair degree of subjectivity, if not arbitrariness, about the classification and assessment of human behaviour. Methodological shortcomings may well be a built-in risk in such studies.

Third, there are plenty of contrary studies that could be considered, but are usually ignored. "The central question is whether the study would have received so much attention if it had concluded that day care did indeed pose problems for the mother-infant bond." Exactly. In Australia one regularly finds front-page coverage of studies that purport to show that extended periods of day care pose no harm to children, or that divorce has no ill effects on children. Yet when a study comes out with the opposite conclusion, it is buried in the back pages, and/or relegated to a few paragraphs (if reported at all).

A similar example can be found in the debate about global warming. Especially with the current furore over the Kyoto Agreement, there have been regular media reports, almost all warning of global warming and our doomed future. What the media tends to ignore is the scepticism found among many scientists concerning the whole issue. Sceptics point out a number of points which seldom find their way into the media. These include the fact that most of the rise in global temperatures over the last century took place before Word War II - before the rapid increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions; that satellite measurements fail to show a warming trend; and that computer modelling is very complex, involving a number of variables (consider how hard it is for experts to get tomorrow's weather report right).

One last example can be mentioned, that of needle-exchange programs (NEPs). Whether as a means to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, or to reduce the number of heroin overdoses, such programs are routinely held up as the enlightened path to follow. But the truth is, the case is not at all so clear cut.

Early studies which seemed to show the effectiveness of NEPs have been found to suffer from serious methodological limitations, such as self-reporting by drug addicts. Also, more recent studies, such as one conducted in Montreal, found that drug users who participate in NEPs actually have a higher risk of HIV infection than those who do not. But the media tends to under-report such findings, or ignore them altogether.

As the authors summarise:

"In each of these cases we see the same pattern: a scientific report is seized upon, sometimes prematurely, to support a policy agenda. Then a selective reading of the evidence supplies what we have already called the Johnny Mercer method ('accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative') until the research can appear to justify a firm recommendation. Finally, a public relations effort is undertaken ... to place the conclusions before the public through the proclamations of the media. Politicians take heed of the public clamour for action, and suddenly 'science' has supposedly endorsed a program to transform policy."


Whether the issue is the reporting of crime statistics, breast cancer risks, causes of infant mortality, the risks of nuclear energy, or racial violence, the media loves a good story, and the more controversial the better. We, who depend so much on the media for our news and information, need to be aware of some of the hidden (and not so hidden) dangers of the media, as well as of certain individuals and groups who are happy to use the media for their own ends. One good way to achieve this awareness is to read this book.




























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