Sunday, March 25, 2007

Information Panic and Junk Science

News and information enter our lives in endless torrents, flooding our senses to the overload point. The Media shouts the "news" at us in such a variety of ways that it can be very hard to pick out the real news behind the "news". Every story is trying to grab the headline only to be replaced by a new headline in days or even in minutes. Every "news" story claims to be giving the facts even when the stories conflict with one another. And, every story claims to be using "credible sources" meaning the story is accepted as true. In reality, news stories rarely contain ONLY truth or even ALL the truth. News stories contain the information that the writer wants you to know and nothing else.

Unfortunately writing is learned skill that can be used to the advantage of whoever is writing the paycheck. A story can "prove" just about any point the buyer wants to make. That is why advertising works so well; skilled writers suggest facts based on what they are hired to sell, so we see phrases like, "gets clothes 40% cleaner" 40% cleaner than what??? According to who??? What water temperature did they use???. The statement is based on someone's evaluation and may be true, but isn't a scientific fact that has been proven using accepted scientific practices. This is called "Junk Science"

"Junk Science" covers a whole range of company sponsored tests, studies and panel reviews, as well as unrepeatable clinical studies. Several large pharmaceutical companies have been in the news lately for using Junk Science to get bad drugs approved for human consumption. All science is not created equal and all news stories are not created equal either.

Some of the current sources of information include:
CNN and other news channels.
Discovery and other science based entertainment channels
Internet, including everything from personal websites to Published Scientific Journals
Printed Newspapers such as Seattle PI
News magazines such as Time and Newsweek
Charitable Infomercials like Feed the Children and CBN
Professional Journals like JAMA

News is news right? All news story details should be correct and presented in an unbiased manner right? WRONG! Most news gathering agencies are driven by advertisers that direct what is acceptable news for the publications they support with advertising dollars. Charities present "News" that supports the greatest chance of contributions. Professional Journals publish stories that meet Peer Review and so shun new and revolutionary ideas. Newspapers commonly print full page advertorials that may or may not have the "paid advertisement" notice depending on the paper's policies. Reporters regularly inflate or over-emphasize numbers to create interest in their stories. Most "news" is just hype, created to cause distress in the consumers and profits for the Media, period.

The next time you see a disturbing news story, ask yourself, "Who is profiting from this?" Then, check the citations to see where the journalist got the information. If there are no citations then the writer could have just written it without any facts at all, therefore, the information is useless. If citations are given, consider the sources. Are the sources web pages, blogs, charities, pharmaceutical companies or is the story based on University based clinical studies?? Does the information come from water-cooler gossip or the CDC?

Source evaluation
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Source evaluation is the skill of analysing information sources in order to assess their credibility. The ability to assess different sources of information is highly relevant to the task of operating within a complex information society. Engeldinger (1998) uses the term information literacy in order to describe the ability to recognize information when it is found, and further to determine if it is the best, most accurate, or most current information available.

To understand the news:

1) Look for citations.
2) Check to make sure the citations exist and have been used accurately.
3) Do the math & check it twice.
4) Think for yourself & use logic to decide if the story even makes sense.

For example the website for Inconvenient Truth includes this page:

It lists a group of "facts" about Global Warming and at the bottom gives the citations(Italics are my findings concerning the source cited):

1 According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this era of global warming "is unlikely to be entirely natural in origin" and "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence of the global climate." The IPCC is completely devoted to "Special Report on Safeguarding the Ozone Layer and Global Climate System: Issues Related to Hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons (SROC/SROCF) "The IPCC does not carry out research nor does it monitor climate related data or other relevant parameters." In other words, IPCC is not interested in or paying attention to Global Warming. In fact IPCC is monitoring GLOBAL COOLING due to hydrofluorocarbons.

2 Emanuel, K. 2005. Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years. Nature 436: 686-688. Online here: A well written study but I have to point out that the author cites his own works and this is a big no-no in scientific circles. Also the material covered in the paper only goes back 70 years total so there is no way to know if this trend is new or part of a global cycle.

3 World Health Organization This is an incomplete citation. I did a search and found 600 documents on the web that use this same citation but when I searched on WHO's website not a single article supported this idea. Instead, "Malaria occurs in many regions of the country: the Pacific Coast Region, the Amazonian Region and the Central Region, and it is closely related with population movements resulting from the social situation in the country."

4 Krabill, W., E. Hanna, P. Huybrechts, W. Abdalati, J. Cappelen, B. Csatho, E. Frefick, S. Manizade, C. Martin, J, Sonntag, R. Swift, R. Thomas and J. Yungel. 2004. Greenland Ice Sheet: Increased coastal thinning. Geophysical Research Letters 31. Original Article Not Found.

5 Nature. Incomplete citation. Although 32,000 web pages seem to present this statement, proof of the original study is not available and without knowing what "Nature" refers to, we have no way of finding it.

6 World Health Organization This is an incomplete citation. A search of WHO's website showed no information on deaths caused by Global Warming at all

7 Washington Post, "Debate on Climate Shifts to Issue of Irreparable Change," Juliet Eilperin, January 29, 2006, Page A1. This is taken out of context. The paragraph this is quoted from:

Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer, who also advises the advocacy group Environmental Defense, said one of the greatest dangers lies in the disintegration of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets, which together hold about 20 percent of the fresh water on the planet. If either of the two sheets disintegrates, sea level could rise nearly 20 feet in the course of a couple of centuries, swamping the southern third of Florida and Manhattan up to the middle of Greenwich Village.

8 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. 2004. Impacts of a Warming Arctic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Also quoted in Time Magazine, Vicious Cycles, Missy Adams, March 26, 2006. This paper is available online as part of a 1200 page document. The Article "Vicious Cycles" is available here:,9171,1177014,00.html
and says "sea levels could rise nearly 220 ft. (72 m). That's a worst-case scenario." Missy Adams is an internet-research journalist that specializes in short essays (375 words seems to be her limit.)

9 Time Magazine, Feeling the Heat, David Bjerklie, March 26, 2006. Quote: One study estimates that more than a million species worldwide could be driven to extinction by the year 2050 David did not give a citation so I have no idea who did the study. This is the ONLY thing he has written for TIME.

This is a very good case for Junk Science. The Author of this page has used very bad citations and in doing so invalidates the points given on the page.


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