Let me start by saying you can fill entire football stadiums with things I don’t know. I don’t anything about fly-fishing. I have never figured out how to score tennis. I cannot identify (although my dad tried his hardest to teach me) birds by their songs. I could go on, but you get the idea.
With that said, I’m often called upon by my job to write about things I don’t know much about. I have to do a lot of reading and research, figure out what sources are credible and which are shaky (hello, Wikipedia!) Sometimes, I make mistakes, and readers point them out. I happily make corrections; who wants to be wrong?
Apparently, a lot of folks don’t mind being wrong. And many of those folks occupy the media. And they feed you stuff that isn’t quite right, is misinformed or is downright wrong. In the Wild West that is today’s media, we have to be smart about who we choose as our guides.
Let us take, for instance, a new study about children of gay parents. The Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families has been getting a fair amount of press lately; it’s conclusion is:
Australian children with same-sex attracted parents score higher than population samples on a number of parent-reported measures of child health. Perceived stigma is negatively associated with mental health. Through improved awareness of stigma these findings play an important role in health policy, improving child health outcomes.
I don’t do scientific studies for a living, but I know how to read them. I know what makes for a good study and what makes for a suspect one. And this one is suspect. Why? To start, it violates a basic rule of good scientific studies: it studied people who volunteered and self-reported. For instance, let’s say that you get asked to be part of a study of church-going Christians and how much they participate in their faith communities. You get several surveys over the span of a year and you get to decided what you write down and what you leave out. Human nature being what it is, most of us would put ourselves in the best light. The Australian study is much like that:
It’s not the first time this approach has met with considerable publication and media success. The ACHESS study is a lot like the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), except that it’s larger and newer. I realize that 500 cases is not a number to scoff at, and that such populations are a small minority to begin with. But until social scientists decide to do the difficult, expensive work of locating same-sex attracted parents (however defined) through random, population-based sampling strategies—preferably ones that do not “give away” the primary research question(s) up front, as ACHESS did—we simply cannot know whether claims like “no differences” or “happier and healthier than” are true, valid, and on target. Why? Because this non-random sample reflects those who actively pursued participating in the study, personal and political motivations included. In such a charged environment, the public—including judges and media—would do well to demand better-quality research designs, not just results they approve of.
Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist is also aware that ignorance (not stupidity, mind you; I might tackle that another time) in the media is a problem. She gives an example of Vox tweeting a map purporting to show “America’s gun violence epidemic” yet the map merely showed gun ownership rates. There was the earnest young reporter who called the pope’s ornate shepherd’s crook (a crozier) a “crow’s ear” and then this “face-palm” account from First Things’ Richard John Neuhaus:
An eager young thing with a national paper was interviewing me about yet another instance of political corruption. “Is this something new?” she asked. “No,” I said, “it’s been around ever since that unfortunate afternoon in the garden.” There was a long pause and then she asked, “What garden was that?” It was touching. What prompts me to mention this today is that I’m just off the phone with a reporter from the same national paper. He’s doing a story on Pope Benedict’s new encyclical. In the course of discussing the pontificate, I referred to the pope as the bishop ofRome. “That raises an interesting point,” he said. “Is it unusual that this pope is also the bishop of Rome?” He obviously thought he was on to a new angle.
We’ve all laughed at the idea of “well, if it’s on the Internet, it must be true,” but we’ve all fallen for stuff as well. Anyone can say anything on the Internet, and they do. Even people who are supposed to know what they’re talking about – maybe, especially people who know what they’re talking about. Even credentialed, intelligent writers on sound sites are expected to write about a number of topics and write fast; sometimes we miss things.
Of course, none of this is an excuse for bad research, dumbing-down straightforward points or silliness in the name of scientific research. Caveat emptor: if your media isn’t smart, you need to be.