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 SuggestsIs 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?”
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.
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.”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.
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.”
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.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.
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.
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.