The Times tries to blow the whistle on docs!


Forgets to tell us how much: Remember when dentists would recommend sugarless gum to their patients who chewed gum?

It was a famous sales pitch, sponsored by the people at Trident. To their credit, those people knew they ought to say how many dentists did this.

The people at Trident used their numbers! This was their famous sales pitch:

“4 out of 5 dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.”

Four out of five dentists did that? That worked out to eighty percent!

We thought of the savvy people at Trident when we read yesterday’s New York Times. Doggone it! Robert Pear did a full-sized report about the nation’s doctors. His unpleasant headline said this:

“Doctors Who Profit From Radiation Prescribe It More Often, Study Finds.”

Uh–oh! Pear was reporting on a new study. Just last week, we complained about the way top journalists almost always conduct such reporting.

Sure enough! Pear’s report displayed the very weakness we described!

What did Pear say about the new study? According to his account of the study, doctors with “a financial interest” in radiation treatments are more likely to recommend them—much more likely, in fact:
PEAR (8/19/13): Doctors who have a financial interest in radiation treatment centers are much more likely to prescribe such treatments for patients with prostate cancer, Congressional investigators say in a new report.

The investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, said that Medicare beneficiaries were often unaware that their doctors stood to profit from the use of radiation therapy. Alternative treatments may be equally effective and are less expensive for Medicare and for beneficiaries, the report said. In other recent studies, the auditors found a similar pattern when doctors owned laboratories and imaging centers that billed Medicare for CT scans and magnetic resonance imaging.
It sounded bad. But as Ed McMahon might have said, How bad was it?

How much more likely are these doctors to recommend radiation treatment?

Pear wrote a full-length report. It ran more than 700 words. But it was just like we told you last week:

Pear never used his numbers to tell us how much more likely those doctors were to recommend radiation! How much more likely is “much more likely?”

Pear never tried to say.

Are doctors ten percent more likely? Is it more like sixty percent? The journalist never attempted to say. We the rubes never found out.

As we told you last week, this is one of our favorite pet peeves. It’s a tremendously common journalistic practice—and it makes no earthly sense.

The people at Trident used their numbers. Top modern journalists don’t.


  1. Fifty Three percent, Bob.

    Every blogger thinks their readers might only be interested in the bloggers critique not the answer to the question that criticism might raise.

    See page 15.

  2. Bob's point is that the journalist should have told us that, not you.

    1. Yep. I should have asked instead of answered.

      How many dentists did Trident survey, Bob?

      Just like how many BMW's were there in the last study he criticized. And how can you know how many white people changed their answer in a study when individual answers weren't reported, only changes in group rating averages. I know that last one will leave Bobfan's scratching their heads, but such are the vicissitudes of life in the face of social science research.

      It's harder than counting cars at a corner.
      Bob could have told you that, too. But that would have required research. And like that Nagourney fellow covering elected ladies in LA, that takes work.


    2. Your increased research Poops, has done nothing to further the point, which was that "journalism" failed in these cases due to not ASKING the questions.

      ANSWERING the question, which you've so, so admirably done (/sarcasm), is helpful, in a different way -- But only a true douchebag like you would pretend that the failure of a media critic to do so was a significant issue.

      But you've got to leave your steaming heap here daily, don't you?

  3. Hey, PPP, didn't you always wonder about that fifth dentist?

    Makes me wonder about that old commercial pitch that Bob now cites, at face value without asking any questions, as an example of how journalism should be done today.

    My dentist has always preached, "Don't chew gum at all, sugarless or otherwise."

    It could be that five out of five dentists surveyed by Trident initially said exactly the same thing. Then when pressed further, four out of five said, "OK, if you absolutely have to chew gum, chew something that won't rot your teeth as you grind them down and throw your jaw out of whack" while the fifth dentist wouldn't budge.

    And that would hardly be the endorsement for sugarless gum that a manufacturer of sugarless gum claims it is.

    Now I will propose a silly, wild hypothetical.

    Suppose Chris Hayes, on the slowest news day imaginable, did a segment extolling the virtues of sugarless gum that began with, "According to a survey conducted by a leading manufacturer of sugarless gum, four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum to their patients who chew gum."

    How many blog posts and for how long would Somerby devote to that?

    1. The blogger's point wasn't about why the dentists recommended what they recommended. His point wasn't about the reasoning, motivations, or merits of the answers to various poll questions.

      The example Somerby used was sheerly to illustrate his argument that journalists using phrases like "MORE people" do such-and-such is not specific enough to tell you anything.

    2. And without fail, here comes Cecelia to tell us what Bob really means.

      Cecelia, good and loyal tribal member that you are, I am certain you find nothing silly at all in citing a "survey" to sell chewing gum as an example of how serious journalists should do their jobs.

    3. What I find silly is your playing dumb to the fact that a widely known bit of pop culture was used to effectively illustrate an argument about the shoddy reporting of statistics.

      I find it silly too, that you seem to have no shame.

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