Ag Coms Blog Post 4: Statistical Inference

Today in Ag Coms we discussed statistical inference.  We learned how to decode articles using statistics to be good consumers of information.  As evidenced by the demonstration in class, that can present challenges.

For homework, we’re supposed to read a news article, find the study, analyze the study’s results, and assess the article’s reflection of the study.  The government is constantly pouring money into helping people live longer, healthier lives, so the “Health” section of your local newspaper is a good place to start.

This is not the homework, just in case you’re confused.  I decided to do my own little study, and see how the average headline- skimmer would read a daily smattering of health news.

I’m looking on the front page for the Los Angeles Times’ Health website right now.  There are 14 articles on the main page.  Of these, 6 are about dieting or exercise, four are about cancer, three are about drugs or alternative medical therapies, and one is about persuasion. Almost every article associated with a study grossly over generalizes and comes up with the most shocking headline:

“Popular breast cancer treatment increases risk of mastectomy”, “a baby is born addicted to drugs about once an hour, study says”, “new research sends a stark warning to overweight teens”, “’Weapons of Persuasion’ from Robert Cialini”.

That last one is actually a psychological study that seems fairly unbiased on the varying degrees of success humans have using persuasive tactics on each other.  Fascinating!  But, I had to click on that headline to find out where it was going.  They tried to draw me in with the words “Mitt Romney”.  Mitt Romney? Where?  What’s he doing in the health section?  Is he sick?

I would be interested to see which articles get the most hits.  I’m sure most people breeze past the studies and go straight to “In Your Face Fitness”.  Our country lives in constant fear of ugliness, and our society has told us that skinny, healthy people who exercise a lot are more beautiful.  And, of course, old people with cancer and no hair are ugly.  So you should try as hard as possible not to get cancer, and cling to everything that says “anti- aging” as if your life depends on it.

My point is, being a “good” consumer of information is harder than it should be.  If you really want the truth, you must look at an article’s source.  Few of the headlines accurately represent their articles, and I’d be willing to bet that few of the articles accurately represent that studies they were based on.   Which to me defeats the purpose of an article, because when I read an article about a study, I think, “Great!  They read the study so I don’t have to.”

Well, you do.  You can be a good consumer of information or you can be an ignorant consumer of information, and one could cost you your boob.

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