You're becoming a characature of yourselves, journalists

Hello All! I’m finally back after an extended absence, one that was originally planned to simply be the time off between semesters but was lengthened when my post-Summer semester lethargy turned into full-blown illness (I was diagnosed with mononucleosis). While I’m not 100% back to my old self — the fatigue seems to ebb and flow — I’m at least  at a point where I can kick start my research once again.

In my time off, I read a steady stream of articles that have focused on women — women in the workplace, women in society, women and the economy. I guess it’s the en vogue conversation at a time when women are now 51% of the workforce and society continues to shift. I don’t want to minimize the attention — I think it’s incredibly important for there to be dialog on this issue — however, I’m frustrated at some of the way some journalists and authors play fast-and-loose with research.

In the spirit of this frustration, I was delighted to come upon this post by Martin Robbins on The Lay Scientist blog entitled This is a news website article about a scientific paper. It pokes fun at the ridiculous way that journalists cover research discoveries. The beginning…

In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?

I feel strongly that research is often horribly misused (I’ve discussed this before). While some of the misuse is the result of bad research, the people who report the research (good and bad) make it worse. Often, they: a) don’t really understand how research works or how conclusions are drawn; and b) attempt to show balance with point/counterpoint when, in most cases, one side is far more correct than the other, creating a false sense opinion parity where it should not be. The result is that perfectly intelligent people come to incorrect conclusions about the world around them based upon poor analysis. Who really has time to check the methodology of every study we read?

I found a great summary of the warning signs of bad research research reporting here.

So, what to do when you read a startling fact that seems a bit too groundbreaking to be true? Do a little digging, especially if you think that it might influence the way you make decisions. If you believe that women speak 20,000 words a day and men only 7,000, you might make a different marketing decision than if you believe that men and women speak roughly the same number of words (the latter has been supported by multiple studies and, in my opinion, is a far more consistent conclusion than the former).

Finally, I’m doing my best to rigorously test the common numbers used when discussing marketing to women (the 85% number, for instance). As I find more information, I’ll be sure to report it, just not in a wishy-washy way.