Deception & Misdirection

No, they don’t read the studies


[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

Every day as I read through stacks of dead-tree and virtual newspapers, I come across studies. Lots and lots of studies.

The ones on controversial issues are, in the vast majority of cases, critically misreported, fatally flawed, or downright fraudulent. Either the news story based on the study exaggerates or otherwise misrepresents the results, or the study is broken (it has a logical flaw in its design or execution), or it was never actually done in the first place. (Yes, sometimes researchers just sit there and invent the results.)

Allen’s Law: 95% of studies as reported in the news media are fake.

A study on the health effects of environmental chemicals or personal practices may be based on people’s recollections, which are inherently flawed. (A lung cancer victim is more likely than a non-victim to “remember” his parents smoking a lot, even if the level of parental smoking was actually the same in both cases.) A study that compares “conservatives” to “liberals” is almost certain to reflect the bias of the researcher who divided people into the two groups. (One study compared the personalities of “liberals” like Abraham Lincoln and “conservatives” like Josef Stalin. Ha! Turns out conservatives like the Soviet mass-murderer aren’t very nice.) A study that “finds” that there is a “rape culture” on college campuses, or that cops are racists who shoot first etc., or that birds are racing toward extinction—such a study is likely to appear on the front page of the newspaper or on the first screen of the website or in the first five minutes of the morning news without any reporter actually reading the study or examining its claims critically.

Oops. I’m in trouble now. I’ve just given away one of the dirty little secrets of journalism: When a journalist reports on a study, he or she is no more likely to have read the study than a leftwing congressman is to have read a bill like Obamacare before he or she votes on it.

As a general rule, reporters are lazy. They want material handed to them. They want a press release in the morning that they can minimally re-write and to which they can attach their bylines or read on the air. The sooner they get it done, the sooner they can enjoy the rest of the day. (Not for nothing was a book about the Washington press corps entitled Drunk Before Noon.)

Come to think of it: As a general rule, reporters are stupid, too. (http://capitalresearch.org/2014/07/the-today-show-j-fred-muggs-was-the-smart-one/) It probably wouldn’t help things much if they tried to read the studies.

In a later column, I’ll give some examples of studies that made it into the news media. For now, I’ll demonstrate just how much the media rely on studies.

Monday at 3:20 p.m. Eastern Time, I plugged the word “study” into Google News and got page after page of references posted online in the past few hours. I’m not saying all these stories are fake—just that the vast majority of the ones on controversial topics are fake as reported.

Here’s what popped up in Google News, on just the first three pages of results:

  • Manny: Study linking heavy lifting, trouble conceiving may hold … Fox News-1 hour ago… A study out of Harvard University this week suggests that working longer hours and lifting heavy items while trying to conceive may lead to …
  • Drones Stress Out Bears, Study Says Newsweek-2 hours ago In the study, scientists from the University of Minnesota fitted four wild black bears with heart rate monitors, and detected what happened when …
  • City Grime Releases Pollutant When Exposed to Sunlight: Study … WebMD-4 hours ago Field studies conducted in Toronto and Leipzig, Germany, revealed that sunlight releases nitrogen oxides from grime. When in the air, nitrogen …
  • Violent Video Games Are Linked to Aggression, Study Says TIME-3 hours ago Violent video games are linked to more aggressive behaviors among players, according to a new review of research. The debate over whether …
  • New study finds faith, religion can help provide ‘sustained happiness’ Today.com-5 hours ago Joining a religious group could do more to provide “sustained happiness” than other types of social activities, like taking a class, volunteering …
  • Nearly half of Americans live in areas prone to earthquakes, study … KSL.com-2 hours ago WASHINGTON (CNN) — You don’t have to live in California to be at risk of experiencing an earthquake, according to a new study. Research …
  • Study finds lack of diversity in DA’s office The San Diego Union-Tribune-3 hours ago A recent study conducted by Stanford University has found that district attorney’s offices across the state still have a long way to go to reflect the …
  • Racial Wealth Gap Persists Despite Degree, Study Says New York Times-19 hours ago But a new study has found that for black and Hispanic college graduates, that shield is severely cracked, failing to protect them from both …
  • Study says that cats are ‘more successful’ than dogs throughout history Mashable-2 hours ago A new study published in PNAS reveals that, when taking history and science into it or whatever, cats have proven to be the more successful …
  • Workplace Rudeness Spreads Like a Virus, Study Finds ABC News-11 hours ago “What we found in this study is that the contagious effect is based on an automatic cognitive mechanism — automatic means it happens …
  • Five Paralyzed Men Move Their Legs Again in a UCLA Study Smithsonian-5 hours ago But, during a groundbreaking new study conducted at UCLA, all five men moved their legs with the aid of transcutaneous stimulation, or the …
  • Central Asia Mountain Range Has Lost a Quarter of Ice Mass in 50 … Wall Street Journal-4 hours ago The latest study, published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, tracks changes in the Tien Shan glaciers from 1961-2012. Past studies of …
  • Study: To win a woman’s heart, try feeding her first Quartz-16 hours ago A new psychology study published in Appetite suggests that young women respond more to romantic images when they’re fed than when …
  • Study Finds ‘Supercookies’ Used Outside US Wall Street Journal (blog)-5 hours ago That’s the conclusion of a study by privacy group Access Now, which tested how the technology is being used around the world. Supercookies …
  • New Study Links Preterm Birth With Microbes in Mom’s Body ABC News-12 minutes ago It’s not clear why, but there’s one clue in Monday’s study: At-risk mothers had low levels of lactobacillus bacteria, a family of bugs long thought …
  • Study: Signs may not make uncontrolled rural intersections safer The Gazette: Eastern Iowa Breaking News and Headlines-5 hours ago Stop or yield signs appear to have little effect on the safety of low-traffic, rural intersections, the study said. The study was conducted by Iowa …
  • Study: Playing Tetris can help ease cravings Highly Cited-UPI.com-Aug 14, 2015 …
  • Happiness drops significantly after first child, study finds MinnPost-3 hours ago Indeed, that was the study’s main goal: to try to figure out why couples in Germany and many other developed countries are having fewer children then they …
  • Study ranks most, least educated cities in America KSLA-TV-3 hours ago A new study ranks the most and least educated cities in the United States. The study, conducted by finance website WalletHub, attempts to …
  • Nutritionist Attacked After Debunking ‘Glyphosate In Milk’ Study … Science 2.0-6 hours ago The source of the original claim is a non-peer-reviewed “study” organized and overseen by the virulently anti-GMO advocacy group Moms …
  • global photoshop study shows ‘perceptions of perfection’ across the … Designboom-4 hours ago the study went a step further by calculating the estimated weight and BMI of each submission. while some designers in north, south, and central …
  • High-paying jobs outpacing others in recovery USA TODAY-3 hours ago A new study concludes that high-paying jobs have grown the fastest in the economic recovery, casting doubt on the widespread lament that …
  • Study Shows Way More People Are Sexually Fluid Than You Might … Mic-41 minutes ago What’s arguably most interesting about this study, therefore, is not the increased quantity of people identifying as non-exclusively heterosexual, …
  • Study: Sleep apnea affects pregnant women, fetus WBAL Baltimore-1 hour ago “So what you would theorize, based on this study, is that this fetus will then grow up to have different types of complications like diabetes, …
  • Study: Uber saves lives OCRegister-12 hours ago A new, independent study indicates that’s just what has happened since Uber started six years ago. It has made hiring a driver as easy as …

 

Before those stories were written, how many of those studies actually got read, d’you think?

 

Dr. Steven J. Allen

Dr. Allen heads CRC’s investigative unit, writes a series exposing political deception, and covers labor unions and environmental groups. He previously served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton, as editor…
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