TAM 2014: A Journalist’s Perspective

Rainbow brain frogsI’ve just returned from The Amazing Meeting, a gathering for people who want to promote critical thinking and science literacy. The event, organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation, was a great place to make connections and gain a fresh perspective as I seek to brainstorm ways to reduce misinformation in the media.

This year’s theme was Skepticism and the Brain, so a lot of talks brought up psychological processes that perpetuate misinformation – things like confirmation bias and the backfire effect. But the intersections between critical thinking, science communication and journalism go well beyond that. Some highlights and reflections:

  • Chris Guest, in a short paper, discussed some of the pitfalls of Bayesian analysis, and suggested that this kind of misunderstanding of probability may have fuelled the fire of AIDS denialism. This area seems ripe for more exploration, and there is much work to be done on improving journalists’ understanding of probability – especially as story choices are so often based on ideas of the “unusual” (eg “man bites dog”).
  • Donald Prothero, speaking on the back of his recent book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future, rejected the idea that “there’s woo on the left and woo on the right – they’re just the same.” Only the GOP, he contended, adopts rejection of science as its official policy. He also offered some hope for climate change communicators, saying recent polls have shown that 60-80% of Americans have come to accept that climate change is real. Hard-core climate deniers, he said, are at most 10-20% of the population – but they are the loudest, and they control politics.
  • Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina took us through a history of notable articles in the publication – including a 1959 piece about the connection between carbon dioxide and climate. One member of the audience asked about an amateur scientist column that SciAm used to run, and interestingly DiChristina seemed to share his regret at its cancellation: “Boy did we blow it, because look at the maker movement today.” She said the SciAm website is exploring more ways to get the public engaged in science. Currently, the main methods are through its Citizen Science channel which links to crowdsourced research projects such as Galaxy Zoo and FoldIt; and Bring Science Home activities, which parents can use with their children. But it sounds like before too long, we might see new initiatives.
  • Sharon Hill, the creator of Doubtful News and the Media Guide to Skepticism as well as the Sounds Sciencey column for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, said that she tries to make her brand positive, not positioning herself as a “debunker” or “skeptic.” She has found traction for her science-based news by following article trends and playing to SEO. For example, Hill says she was the only person who wrote skeptically about an article drawing a link between MSG and autism. This is a great example of where news’ obsession with “balance,” so often an editorial pressure that leads readers away from the truth, can actually work in favor of the truth. Reporters are looking for someone to take a counter-position, and skeptics can help to fill that gap, thereby helping to bring scientific points of view to the public.
  • Karl Kruszelnicki (Dr. Karl), a scientific polymath often described as the “Australian Bill Nye,” described journalists as being so overloaded with information that they can’t concentrate. It certainly did comfort me to feel I’m not alone in this regard – and to know I’m not as badly affected as some reporters, whom Karl said couldn’t even sit down and read a novel anymore!
  • Finally, I was gratified to hear that many people are interested in my idea for a Misinformation Science wiki: a website that will summarize the major psychological and industry factors helping to perpetuate the spread of misinformation in the media, and various efforts to combat this problem. I hope to have the beta version ready in a few weeks. Feel free to message me if you’d like to be notified when this goes live.

It was a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking conference, and I encourage any and all of my fellow attendees to get in touch with me to continue the conversation. See you at TAM 2015!

photo credit: “lapolab” via photopin cc


3 Replies to “TAM 2014: A Journalist’s Perspective”

  1. I’ll have to read Chris Guest’s article. I use Bayesian analysis — in fact just finished up using it as part of a World Cup prediction exercise and the model performed better than those of FiveThirtyEight and Goldman Sachs (http://troubadourconsulting.com/wcuppredict/).

    All that said, people do tend to distort statistics all the time. If you set up a complex data model to explain some phenomena, at some point someone will try to distill it down into two sentences, or worse, a headline.

    I’m curious to see if Guest suggests that it’s a problem with Bayesian analysis or a problem with the way some try to interpret the results. Either way, there are important implications.

  2. Dale,

    Nice predictions on the World Cup!

    There will be a video & paper up on the JREF website at some point. I need to dot some I’s and straighten up eequations etc. You can follow @krisgest for further details.

    I was at pains to say Bayesian methods were above board & effective in many situations, but probability can be quite counterintuitive for us.

    Then I showed bizarre examples in theology articles & the like & explained where those particular scholars got their stats wrong.

    1. Following you now! I’m @data_modeler. I’ll be interested to read.

      Agree that probability can be counter-intuitive. We’ve had our own internal conversations here about how to talk about our World Cup predictions.

      I tend to always wind up thinking about the John Tukey quote:
      “Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.”

      Now if I can only figure out if I’m providing the approximate/right or the exact/wrong.


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