The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘reporting’

Fox News Nails It on Ebola

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 16, 2014

Ebola is in the news, and unfortunately too many people are speculating and panicking about this terrible disease.  And even more unfortunate, there are far too many media professionals who are reporting the news on Ebola in a completely irresponsible manner.  In the spirit of lighting candles rather than cursing the darkness, I would like to share an example of very good reporting on this matter from Shepard Smith at Fox News.  I don’t often agree with commentary on Fox News, but this just nails it. Folks, get your flu shot, and stop panicking about Ebola; get more facts here:

Posted in media woo, medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Death and Rebirth of Science Reporting?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 1, 2009

There has been a disturbing trend in recent years in journalistic circles: the decline of science journalism in many areas of the media, specifically print media (newspapers, magazines, etc). However, it’s not all bad news, because Internet-based blogging provides a new venue for science reporting.

science blogs

As this article in NatureNews states…

Traditional journalists are increasingly looking to such [science-based] sites to find story ideas (see ‘Rise of the blogs’). At the same time, they rely heavily on the public-relations departments of scientific organizations. As newspapers employ fewer people with science-writing backgrounds, these press offices are employing more. Whether directly or indirectly, scientists and the institutions at which they work are having more influence than ever over what the public reads about their work.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Media Math

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 24, 2009

I saw this over at Wheat-dogg’s world, and I simply had to share it 😀

media math

Posted in humor, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Financial Crisis & Business Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 14, 2009

The news about the economy is, by most accounts, pretty dismal these days. As time goes on, we are finding out about more an more shady deals on Wall Street and even outright fraud – think Bernard Madoff. How did we get caught up in this hysteria of wishful thinking that drove an insane economic bubble which ultimately burst so badly?

I’m no economist, and I don’t like to write about economics, but I wanted to take a moment or two to give a shout-out to someone who is applying skepticism & critical thinking to these questions – Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show 😀

In the last week, Jon Stewart has very publicly and vocally taken those financial reporters, networks, and commentators – such as CNBC’s Mad Money with Jim Cramer – to task for failing to apply their own skepticism & critical thinking to the situation. And in the end, when dealing in business and/or investing, it boils down to that old adage: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

I want to share two video clips of Jon Stewart laying the skeptical smackdown on CNBC for failing to apply critical thinking to these issues. The first is a broadcast from The Daily Show earlier in the week where Stewart criticizes CNBC for giving sloppy or shady financial advice…

stewart vs cnbc

The second video is an interview between Stewart and Cramer as they discuss what went wrong and the business media’s responsibility to be more willing to ask tough questions and follow through…

stewart vs cramer

I have to agree with Stewart. While it is incumbent upon all of us to apply our critical thinking skills to issues of business & finance, at some point we depend upon the business media outlets, like CNBC, to provide us with trustworthy information. Let us hope we’ve all learned this painful lesson well.

Posted in economics, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Shootings & Media Myth

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 13, 2009

Some of the big stories in recent days have been about various public shootings – one in an Illinois church, another in a school in Germany, and a third in an Alabama shooting spree. The media is making a really big deal out of all of these incidents.

Please understand, I do not mean to belittle the horror and loss of those unfortunate enough to have been directly affected by these events, but there is such a thing as over-emphasis on these things. Reading some of these headlines and listening to the media drone on and on about these tragedies has the effect of magnifying the apparent danger of shootings.

The problem with such wall-to-wall media coverage of such shootings is that it, either intentionally or not, gives people the impression that crazed gunmen are laying in wait to murder innocent people at school, church, or in the public square. The reaction from the media and those who pay too much attention to these stories is overblown and way out of proportion to reality.

For example, I teach at a high school, and in the couple of years after the Columbine tragedy, the administration at my school went a little nuts on the whole security question. I was involved in that work, and in retrospect I can tell you that it was little more than an exercise in collective hysteria. In fact, a wave of such hysteria seemed to sweep over the country over the years regarding fears of school shootings.

The hysteria seemed to climax a few years ago when filmmaker Michael Moore released his movie, “Bowling for Columbine”, which (in my opinion) played upon these fears to push a political agenda.

bowling for columbine

But how much danger is there really to you as an individual and society at large from this apparent epidemic of gun-wielding maniacs? Very little, if you look at the statistics & evidence.

For example, according to the Youth Violence Project, the perception of gun violence at schools as projected by the media and activists is in no way a trustworthy reflection of reality…

How often can a school expect a student-perpetrated homicide?

Media attention to sensational cases has generated the perception that there is a high risk of a student coming to school and killing someone. This perception of high risk has led to extreme zero tolerance policies and profiling of some students as potential killers. However, a review of the National School Safety Center’s report ( identified 93 incidents when a student came onto school property and killed one or more persons over the worst ten-year period, 1992-3 to 2001-02. This means an average of about 9.3 cases per year or about once a month during the school year. Although we should strive to prevent all such cases, in a nation of 119,000 schools, a rate of 9.3 cases per year means that the average school can expect such an event about once every 12,800 years (119,000 divided by 9.3). This calculation is not intended to be a precise measure of risk, but an indication that there is a huge gap between the general perception of risk and the actual rate for the average school.

And here is more data from the Youth Violence Project…

Homicides in U.S. Schools
Caption: Contrary to public perception, school homicides declined after 1993, although from 1997 to 1999 there was a series of copycat shootings stimulated by unprecedented media coverage. Source: National School Safety Center report (includes only cases of student-perpetrated homicides on school property) .

Now let’s put the few shooting deaths that occur due to student-on-student gun violence at schools into a broader context…

Causes of Death in Young People
Caption: The risk of death by school homicide is miniscule in comparison to other causes. According to the National Center of Vital Statistics, the leading cause of death among young people is accidents (primarily motor vehicle accidents). Although there were 2,261 homicides of school-age youth in 2004, almost all of them took place outside of school. According to a report of the National Center for School Safety, there were just 10 student homicides at school that year. This makes the risk of homicide about 226 times greater outside of school than at school. Source: National Center of Vital Statistics, 2004.

So the bottom line is that media myth-makers are dead wrong when they imply that our schools, churches, and public squares in general are not safe from gun-wielding maniacs. Sadly, too many in the media choose to exaggerate the violence as a way of gaining ratings, and this leads people to have a distorted view of reality as a result.

For reference, here are some great skeptically-oriented books on this and related topics. I heartily recommend them so that the next time you are presented with similar stories, your Baloney Detection Kit is in tip-top shape and ready to deal with the nonsense…

The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner
Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best
Media Mythmakers by Benjamin Radford

Posted in media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

More Media Fail: TV Causes Asthma!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 4, 2009

Every day, when I get a break from teaching, I like to sit down at the computer in my room and read through some news. Today, I saw a headline that made me roll my eyes: “Too much TV linked to higher asthma risk”

The problem that I have with this article is mostly with the title, because due to the way in which it is set up, it gives the impression to the uninformed reader that TV causes asthma or if you allow your kid to watch TV they could develop asthma. In fact, the article states in its opening paragraph…

Children who watch television for more than two hours a day have twice the risk of developing asthma, British researchers reported Tuesday.

Now, to be fair, later in the article – right at the end – was further clarification on the research…

“The findings add to a wealth of evidence linking a lack of exercise and being overweight with an increased risk of asthma,” Elaine Vickers of Asthma UK, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement.

“But this study is the first to directly link sedentary behavior at a very young age to a higher risk of asthma later in childhood.”

Aha! So it isn’t watching television that actually causes kids to get asthma, but it is a sedentary lifestyle (due in part to a lack of exercise & being overweight) that leads to an increased risk of kids developing asthma. But the trouble is that you have to dig all the way to the bottom of the article in order to get that information, and in the meantime many people will come away from this report with the misconception that TV causes asthma in children.

This is a classic example of the media getting hold of a medical or health related story and doing a sloppy job of reporting it. In reality, what the research found is a correlation between the amount of TV watched by kids and them developing asthma. But, as skeptics are often heard to say: correlation does not necessarily imply causation!

Just because there seems to be a relationship between two variables – in this case the amount of TV watched versus the likelihood of a child developing asthma – doesn’t mean that one causes the other! There could be other relevant variables, and often there are other variables, that flesh out the picture in more detail. In the specific case here, that is the connection of a sedentary lifestyle. But does this mean that if you have a kid who both leads an active lifestyle (lots of exercise) and watches a lot of TV that they’ll still get asthma, just by watching the TV? I think you see my point.

I’m making such a big stink about this particular point because this is something the media screws up all the time. They take a bit of news about some health-related research and present it completely out of context with some headline that gives an incorrect view of the science involved. And since most people don’t go around reading medical journals for their health news, they have to rely on the media to get the story right. But if the media doesn’t get the story right, as is too often the case, then people start to make poor decisions regarding their health.

Now, if you don’t think this is a serious issue, consider how sloppy reporting has affected health issues in the past – a perfect example is the piss-poor job the media did reporting the results of Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s bogus research supposedly linking childhood vaccines with the incidence of autism. At best, Wakefield discovered a correlation between the two (actually he didn’t even discover that because it’s been revealed he faked the research), but due to the rotten job done by most media outlets in getting the story out many people were left with the false impression that vaccines for kids cause childhood autism! And now, we are having to deal with all manner of problems due to the subsequent anti-vaccination movement that has popped up, which is convincing scared parents not to vaccinate their kids. Some of the results of this combination of an irresponsible media and opportunistic pseudoscientists & conspiracy theorists are not pretty.

So there are real-world, tangible consequences for the media not doing a proper job of reporting science & medical information. Not that I’m worried that there is going to be an “anti-TV-death-ray” movement popping up anytime soon due to the crummy job of reporting this story or anything stupid like that…

… but then, again due in part to improper reporting by the media, there is a movement in the United States of people who refuse to allow construction of vital infrastructure projects like power lines because they think electromagnetic emissions from power lines cause cancer! This, of course, is dead wrong – that whole “correlation is not causation” thing again – but the media messed it up way back when, and now we’re stuck dealing with the situation.

It would be nice if the media could do a better job of reporting on such topics in the beginning, so that pseudoscientists and fear-mongers wouldn’t be able to so easily manipulate & distort science to suit their own agendas.

But these days, when many in the media seem to be more interested in sensationalism as opposed to factual & accurate journalism, I think it will be left up to skeptics to set the record straight. If we don’t, who will?

Posted in media woo, medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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