The word “democracy” has become synonymous with the right to vote and electing representatives in parliament. By extension, to enable people to form opinions and vote, the media plays a crucial in any democratic country.
Up till a few years ago the media was much more centralised and easily controllable by the government who provides the infrastructure or rich individuals/businesses who provide sponsorships.
Today anyone with access to the Internet can broadcast virtually anything in many parts of the world. This obviously has big advantages because all voices can be heard, but the flip side is that consumers have a tough time weighting their scientific objectivity. Worse than that many are not equipped with the skills to analyse media sources and filter out hogwash.
In the rest of the article I will present three very basic tools which can help readers make better sense of media articles:
Correlation vs causality (adapted from this)
Many studies presented in the media are simply about the discovery of a mathematical correlation, i.e. a relationship, between two phenomena. For example everyone would agree that there is a correlation between the consumption of ice-cream and cases of drowning simply because both are more common in summer. However, with a little manipulation this relationship can easily be presented as a causality, i.e. that one is the cause of the other.
Then there are cases where the causal relationship is inverted: for example the statement “Children with better self-esteem do better at school” seems to suggest that having a good self-esteem results in better results. This idea has caused many parents to artificially pump up children self-esteem with the opposite result! The truth is actually the reverse – doing better at school (or any other endeavour) results in better self-esteem and self-esteem which is not linked to any achievement causes children to perform badly throughout their lives.
If something you are reading seems fantastic, then it might well be just that – fantasy. Fortunately you can easily verify whether your impressions are true by visiting one of a number of specialised websites. A hoax I recently encountered was titled: “300-million-year-old UFO tooth-wheel found in Russian city of Vladivostok”. Once you start digging into it you discover that there are no references to scientific publications and that the patterns found in coal could easily have formed naturally.
Numbers are probably the most dangerous precisely because they are numbers and nobody argues with numbers. However, it is very easy to produce poor statistics: the sample size may be small, non representative, etc. What is worse is that even perfectly sound statistics can be manipulated/misunderstood in their presentation/interpretation. For example the statement: “Rich people pay more VAT than poor people” and “Rich people pay more income tax than poor people” are both true but as in most countries higher levels of income are taxed at higher rates while VAT is not linked to ability to pay, hence the amount of VAT paid per consumption unit is the same for both low and high income groups.
Another two equally true statements for Malta (2012) are: “Youth unemployment is expected to climb for the third consecutive year reaching 14.5%, an increase of almost 20% over the previous year” and “Malta boasts of the fifth smallest youth unemployment rate in the EU at 14.5%”. Needless to say, the latter paints a much brighter picture than the former.
With these few insights, I hope readers become more analytical when consuming media, and more importantly allow them to eat ice-cream without worrying of drowning.