This is how silly reporting can be!

FRIDAY, AUGUST 16, 2013

When journalists talk about studies: How silly can news reporting be? Especially, reporting on studies?

To see how silly such reporting can be, check a recent report from the New York Times about the driving habits of people who own fancy cars.

The report appeared in Tuesday’s hard-copy Times. It isn’t important in the slightest, except as a way to see how reporters and pundits constantly talk about academic studies.

This is the way Benjamin Preston’s piece started. We include its sweeping headline:
PRESTON (8/13/13): The Rich Drive Differently, a Study Suggests

Jokes about BMW drivers being, on average, somewhat less than courteous are fairly common. They often run along the lines of, “Despite its good brakes, a BMW will usually stop with a jerk.” Sometimes the language is more colorful.

Now scientific research supports the unwritten and broadly circulated theory that people in BMWs are lacking in road manners. Paul K. Piff, a researcher at the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California, Berkeley, has conducted a study linking bad driving habits with wealth.
Is it true? Do “the rich drive differently,” as the study is said to suggest? Putting it another way, are people in BMWs really “lacking in manners?”

Presumably, some owners of BMWs drive in a courteous manner. Presumably, this study could only have shown or suggested that BMW owners are less courteous, to some degree, than other types of car owners.

The question then would be: How much less courteous are BMW owners? But journalists almost never ask that question when they’re discussing a study.

Go ahead! Read through Preston’s entire report to see if he ever asks that question. Preston is aware of numbers. He cites the number of observations which were made in the course of this (rather limited) study, for instance.

But Preston never provides a number which tells us how much less courteous BMW owners are. Are they ten percent less courteous? Or could the problem be larger than that?

This is the closest we come to an answer. Preston quoted researcher Piff about his rather limited study:
PRESTON: “[Y]ou see this huge boost in a driver’s likelihood to commit infractions in more expensive cars,” he said. “In our crosswalk study, none of the cars in the beater-car category drove through the crosswalk. They always stopped for pedestrians.”

The study also found that male drivers were less likely to stop for pedestrians than were women, and that drivers of both sexes were more likely to stop for a female pedestrian than a male one.

“One of the most significant trends was that fancy cars were less likely to stop,” said Mr. Piff, adding, “BMW drivers were the worst.”
None of the beater-car owners failed to stop for pedestrians. Piff says he observed a “huge boost” in infractions among the owners of expensive cars, but Preston never tries to convert this claim into some sort of a number.

Owners of fancy cars were “less likely to stop” for pedestrians. How much less likely were they to stop? Preston didn’t bother to say. And this is an very common omission when journalists talk about studies.

In the case of the New York Times, this occasioned a silly, pointless report about the way BMW owners drive. But as we noted yesterday, Chris Hayes played the same game that night with respect to a larger category of subjects: “white people.”

“White people don’t like affirmative action unless they’re getting something out of it,” Hayes boldly said in a tease. A second tease followed similar lines, and he opened his segment like this:

“A jaw-dropping new study shows that white people don’t like affirmative action unless they think it’s going to benefit them.”

If all white people feel that way, that would be a jaw-dropping study! But is it really all white folk? Or might it possibly be some small or smallish percentage?

Hayes never bothered to say.

We’re from the old school here! Given the punishing role race has played in our brutal American history, we think people ought to be careful when they talk about race. We’d think that a respectful person would want to stay away from sweeping assertions of the type Hayes was making about those infernal “white people” with their slippery views.

It’s also true that, no matter the subject, it’s very dumb when journalists says that Group A is more likely than Group B to do X, Y or Z, without saying how much more likely Group A is to do it.

Here’s why it’s dumb to omit that:

When you quantify the difference, people will frequently see that Group A and Group B are more alike than different. In a similar way, Hayes didn’t bother quantifying how many “white people” feel the way he was describing. He just said that “white people” feel that way.

Yesterday, we described the study Hayes was butchering. Apparently, some unstated percentage of white people are less inclined to favor strict reliance on GPA when they’re told that Asian students tend to do better than whites on GPA.

Some white people shifted their view on GPA when they received that prompt. But how many white people shifted their view?

Hayes didn’t say. To him, “white people” did that!

Harvard professor Randall Kennedy was Hayes’ guest during this segment. If we’re grading on the curve, Kennedy outscored Hayes:
HAYES (8/13/13): Joining me now is Randall Kennedy, professor of law at Harvard University. Author of the book, For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action and the Law, which comes out next month.

Professor Kennedy, did the results of this study surprise you?

KENNEDY: No, it didn’t surprise me. After all, people will often favor the policy that is good for them and their group. So, it shouldn’t be any surprise that there would be some white people who would downgrade, let’s say, grade point average or test scores if those indices of merit aren’t working in their favor.
Kennedy outscored Hayes. According to Kennedy, people will “often” favor the policy that is good for their group. And he said it therefore isn’t surprising if “some” white people adjusted their views in the manner described.

But he never asked the obvious question: What percentage of “white people” adjusted their views in the manner described? Of course, if he had asked, Hayes wouldn’t have known. And that would have been awkward.

What percentage of BMW owners failed to stop for pedestrians? Preston didn’t bother to say. Neither did Hayes, and he was discussing the most important subject this country has ever known, a subject which is completely entangled with centuries of suffering.

That said, journalists almost always talk about studies this way. We’d call it a favorite pet peeve. We’d also call it a strong marker of how poorly we post-Neanderthals tend to reason when groups or tribes or even “races” get dragged into the stew.

Our view? Groups tend to more alike than different, till tribal brains start to churn.

39 comments:

  1. I was surprised that there was no comment on the absurdity of the Toyota Prius example. The Toyota Prius owners, apparently, were also less courteous drivers.

    PRESTON: In the San Francisco Bay Area, where the hybrid gas-and-electric-powered Toyota Prius is considered a status symbol among the environmentally conscious, the researchers classified it as a premium model.

    So follow that logic: the Toyota Prius can be used to support the hypothesis that rich people are less courteous drivers because Toyota Prius drivers are less courteous and even though it is a $30k car it is considered a status symbol among the environmentally conscious.

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    Replies
    1. "Our view? Groups tend to more alike than different, till tribal brains start to churn."

      when the pernicious effects of americans of irish catholic descent are factored into many situations, youre reversion to the mean hypothesis is shredded. you of all people, bob, shoudl understand this, especially in light of your above rant about the dumbing down effect of not being exact and complete.

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    2. Isn't any ethnic ethos a form of tribalism, Einstein?

      How would it be hypocritical to have bemoaned some aspect of such a dynamic while condemning the divisiveness of tribalism?

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    3. Good point, Anon4:36.

      Like we needed a study to know that being in a cool set of wheels turns us all into gods.

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    4. my comment was intended for somerby, not the first commenter. damn computers.

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    5. above last comment is from cris p. baycon, not quickdrw, which is somehow my default nick, though i dont remember ever using it intentionally. damn internet.

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    6. A rose by any other name...cris p.

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    7. hah! u missed one... "a pig by any other name...mr bacon."

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  2. What good is historic injustice if you can't use it as a pea shooter to punish the cootie kids?

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    Replies
    1. whos side r u on or what site do yu thuink yer on? the cootiekids, the agents of lice transmission are metaphorically americans of irish catholic heritage with their infectious 'death in life' attitude. u want to punish 'us', like lord somerby. dame ceceliamc? . . . and, hey, u wound me up, u started it.

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    2. No douchebag, you started it, as always, with your insane fixation on your own ethnicity. We don't care. You're a nut.

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  3. They would need to be sure there were not more male drivers in those BMWs, since women are more likely to stop for pedestrians. If women are driving the beaters, then the effect has little to do with being rich and a lot to do with gender and the fact that men tend to own those fancier cars. This is pretty obvious but these studies don't always control for the obvious.

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    1. I would suggest the obvious- that the white male is primarily the culprit here.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Can't help but notice Bob is ignoring the "American Betrayal" flap-I guess it's only the left that is supposed to self police. Maybe he's afraid of losing hard won deep thinkers like CeceliaMc.

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    1. Or maybe it's that the right is self policing, in this case. Don't know if you follow Kevin Drum, but he links to a lengthy takedown of this book from Front Page. I don't know how to post links here in the comments or I'd send you there.
      From what I gather searching the net, a number ofconservatives find the book embarrassing crap.

      Delete
  6. Poo Poo Platter (Peeve Puree)

    Want to know how silly reporting can be? Read a blogger reporting on the press reporting on studies.

    Bob's beef? Neither the NYT Wheels Blogger nor MSNC's Chris Hayes reported the quantifiable measurements in these studies. My beef? I'll bet none of the original reporters nor their blogger critic ever bothered to read the actual studies before reporting on them.

    The car blogger quotes the lead "scientist" as saying BMW drivers were the worst. "How much worse" asks Bob, and criticizes writer Preston for either not asking Mr. Piff (What names for my comment post! Preston Probes Professor Piff on Pedestrian Protocols.) If either Preston or Somerby had read the study, they would find that it says nothing about which model drivers performed worse, only categories of models. BMW's fell into Category 5, along with Mercedes and Prius and heaven knows what else. And in the Pedestian study there were only 13 total cars in Category 5. Seven yielded. Six did not. The question isn't how much worse are BMW drivers. It isn't how many failed to yield. It is how few BMW's were observed to reach Piff's preposterous conclusion about their drivers in the first place? But at least we can assume Preston and Piff palavered.

    I noted the first time Bob posted on Chris Hayes's story that he seemed on the right track by noting it was reported as a finding on affirmative action when clearly it was not. But Bob blew right past that forest and into the trees of percentages of differences in white respondents' answers to different questions. Bob has called for the heads of reporters for less than the basic underlying prevarication involved in how Hayes teased and portrayed this study. But he missed an even bigger issue of bad reporting. Hayes was misrepresenting a study he almost certainly never read. And neither did his guest, who as a professor of law probably doesn't dabble much in the statistical significance of social science research anyway. Bob criticized Hayes for questions he didn't ask. My first guess is he didn't ask because he never even talked to the study's author, much less read the work.

    My second guess is Bob hasn't talked to Professor Sampson or read his work either. Had he done so he would know, from the study design, that the answer to his simple quantitative difference question cannot be easily provided. There were multiple hypotheses the study was testing and the measurement of attitudes toward the importance of things like GPA in admissions was scaled. The social science researcher didn't measure what percentage of white people changed their response. He measured the change in cumulative importance assigned by different groups under different hypothetical situations.

    Bob's right. Press reporting of research is pitiful. But so is his review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Distilling your shit:

      Somerby was right -- Press reporting of studies is awful, and for the reason he says, that they don't ask meaningful questions -- but you don't like Somerby being right, so you spill your diarrhea for several paragraphs.

      Pitful shit, Poops.

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    2. Your response is simply idiotic. I said Somerby's main point was correct. But his questions were as stupid as the coverage. If you care to refute my assertions, fine. If not, you fall into third place here behind Somerby and the press corps. You didn't distill my "shit." You don't understand shit, period.

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    3. There is no reason whatsoever that Bob should examine the study to conclude that needed information was missing. See, the reporter on the study is the one that is supposed to summarize its results and conclusions. It's Bob's work to note the most important information that is missing but necessary for enabling someone to rely on its initial assertions.

      Try to have a point sometimes other than that you don't like Bob.

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    4. The Pooper knows that, if he knows anything.

      But the anti-Somerby agenda trumps logic.

      Delete
  7. Chris seems to be making a play for the so-called angry minority demographic, while attempting to solidify his white liberal guilt wracked fan base. He's the enlightened white man attacking white privilege. The result, as to be expected, is self aggrandizing fluff.

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