Onii-chan’s Guide to Misinformation: Research Papers and The Media

In advance: Thanks for reading another of my gigantic free-speech/truth-pursuing articles. I promise there will be a new podcast soon. This week sometime.

I’d like to talk briefly about lying fuckwits in your news, your government, and your friendly neighborhood religious establishment.

Turn on your evening news. Hell, turn on the your national news or one of those super helpful 24-hour news networks. On any given day you will likely see these people crusading against things that you know almost absolutely nothing about. Trans fats, lolicon, the effects of some prescription drug you’ve never heard of, eggs, milk… Yes sir, your local anchorman is telling you that “a recent study” said that all of these things were found to kill you and your children. These people aren’t experts. And the experts that they talk to are specifically chosen sorts of people who are likely to draw causational conclusions from correlational data. Questionably correlational data at that.

Here comes the educational portion of the post.

What a lot of these experts/sensationalists/media folks tend to keep from the people that they’re preaching to is that it often times comes from the “conclusions” or “discussion” section of a given research paper. These bits of such papers are not considered part of scientific process and as such can often be ignored entirely in a peer review situation since they are more or less thought of as carte blanche for the guy who wrote the paper to sell his theories to the people reading whatever journal he’s getting his crap published in. It’s a helpful and useful area of a research paper for a number of reasons. The most obvious of these, if you regularly read any journals, is that it fosters a lot of hilarious competitive disproving of wacky or misinformed theories.

The problem sets in when these discussion sections are read by journalists and then summed up into a catchy piece of fluff that looks good to people with an agenda.  They take the completely over simplified, initially biased (due to the nature of the discussion section), and unproven statements and spin it by wrapping evocative copy around it.

Let me take a recent example to show you how it works. I’m sure at least a few of you have been hassled by your friends lately about drinking diet drinks.

Word on the news is that aspartame will kill you. Oh shit! Cancer for sure from a simple can of diet coke. That’s a fucking bummer. So where did this come from? Basically, the guy who wrote the paper, which I have read myself, got a little zealous in the discussion section. He was discussing his findings and what he thought that they meant in the long run. And being the nutritionist psycho that he was, he blew it out of proportion, wrote some nice one liners and made aspartame the new AIDS. Now my pack-a-day dad is telling me diet coke is going to kill me. I just suggest that we make it a race… I’m not sure how one could win that… but ok.

So what’s the truth?

That’s a little bit more complex. And people’s attention span isn’t very long anymore, especially when numbers are involved, but I’ll explain it. What this guy’s study actually found was that aspartame increased the likelihood of cancer in lab rats… or mice. I forget. One of those. It’s worth noting that both animals are pretty much guaranteed to get cancer and die as a matter of course. Feel free to shit on me for the lack of precision in that statement, but I’ve owned a number of both as pets.

Right, here come the numbers. The amount of aspartame given to the lab animals was found to increase THEIR likelihood of getting cancer by 7% when given an amount of aspartame that would be the rough equivalent of a ~27kg (~60lbs) child drinking six cans of diet soda every day. Now, correct for weight and a ~54.5kg (~120lbs) woman would have to drink a 12 pack per day and a ~82kg (~180lbs) would have to drink 18 cans of the stuff per day to raise their risk of cancer by 7%. Admittedly, when dealing with cancer, any bump is a bummer but given that most things are carcinogens anymore, it’s hard to take it all that seriously.

Probably the most important thing, to me is that, from a purely scientific standpoint, this study only applies to the lab animals in question. A long term human study would need to be carried out before we could absolutely say it’s the same in humans. The reason we test carcenogens on mice and rats is that we’ve found that many of the things that accelerate cancer in them can do the same in us. This doesn’t mean they all do, it just sort of lazily implies it.

Right, enough about that.

Why would this be a problem for us porn lovers? Well, the vocal prudes in many countries like to haphazardly tie any sort of sexual deviance in private to credible threats upon the very lives of people who only have missionary-position sex for the purpose of knocking up their cousin. The problem here, again, is their ability to rally and organize. They have people working every day to prove connections like that. Lots more than we have working to earnestly find out how porn and so on actually effect people.

Rape in countries with more access to porn is lower. We can’t say for sure that those are related… that is if we took a statistics class. However, a woman was raped and the man who raped her had lots of rape-themed porn. The news can say that for sure.

And that’s the problem. Oprah will tell every bleeding-heart, letter writing mom that the rape-porn made him rape a woman. In reality, it was most likely that the man had a mental problem that caused him to focus on raping women, which is both why he bought and enjoyed rape porn and raped the woman. But that’s not what the letter to your good Christian senator/MP will say. No sir.

How do we fix the problem?

Well… you can’t make idiots stop screaming and you can’t make the news stop trying to get people to be afraid. The more afraid people are, the more they tune in to find out what to be afraid of. What you can do is try to stand up for things. Try to write letters to your congressman/MP and tell him that you want the burden of proof to be on the person who is proposing a limiting of civil liberties. That you want scientific fact to drive the formation of laws rather than the fears induced in people by the media. Tell your politicians that they need to work harder to educate people in the face of media shitstorms so that maybe the media will be a bit more responsible. Franking privileges make mailing campaigns very easy. Governments spend tons of money on public service information and when there are gigantic media flare-ups around a subject, there really ought to be a bureau whose job it is to educate people about the truth with a big government sticker on it. Keeping them impartial would be supremely important, of course. (Why an agency rather than a media board like England has? Hurrr… censorship. Speech should be free above all else. The good with the bad, people)

But these things are all very hard to do and very far from being a reality anywhere in the world… so what to do? Well… the put it simply… educate yourselves. Do the work that the media doesn’t and check their references. Even if it sounds logical or truthful, look into it. The best lies are the ones that sound honest.


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11 years ago

Agreed. Media nowadays consists of (almost) nothing but overhyped sensationalist bullshit that (almost always) doesn’t turn out to true.

11 years ago

Here is an interesting case that happened a few days ago: http://kotaku.com/5163181/french-boy-stabs-sister-over-nintendo-ds-%5Bupdate%5D

11 years ago

I really hate how anime/manga fans feel the need to justify their hobby by decrying those who enjoy the perverted aspects of the medium.
Basically, they’re insecure about what they like and are afraid that there parents or the media will find out about their lolicon/hentia/yaoi/whatever and think anything that isn’t deep or insightful is trash.

11 years ago

The problems with the implementation of a rational, empirical standard of proof for laws are myriad. Two come to mind immediately. One is that there is a tremendous backlash against science itself. Another is that this removes control from the hands of politicians. Science has, in the eyes of many, killed the gods they used to follow and not presented any comforting alternatives. Rather than address the problems of a world that is not like the one they grew up believing in, a few people have decided that science is to blame. Deny evolution. Deny global warming. Deny the laws… Read more »

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