Monday, January 4, 2010

Bad Reporter! NO! Bad!

Why is it that people who know nothing about a subject are the ones who report it? Seriously. You could save money hiring middle schoolers. The spelling and grammar might suffer a little (as evidenced by my hometown paper, which I think has gone that route), but the subject material couldn't suffer any more than is the case now.

Case 1: New York Times, shame. This ought to be a fascinating bit of news, but I honestly don't trust any of it.
The new discoveries don't quite fit into any definition of known astronomical objects, and so far don't have a classification of their own. Details about the mystery objects were presented Monday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington.

For now, NASA researcher Jason Rowe, who found the objects, said he calls them ''hot companions.''

How hot? Try 26,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That's hot enough to melt lead or iron.
OK, I know most journalists have never heard of Wikipedia, and it definitely doesn't count as good fact checking, but let's take a stab, hmm? Without checking, my recollection is that lead melts at about 400 F, and iron in the low to mid thousands of degrees. Let's say 1250-1500 F. Now we go to Wikipedia... Lead: 327.46 °C, 621.43 °F; Iron: 1538 °C, 2800 °F. OK, I was probably recalling Celsius values, but given that, I still wasn't too far off. Let's look at boiling points. Lead: 3180 °F; Iron 5182 °F. So we're talking about a planet whose surface is hot enough to vaporize iron. Either that, or a reporter who misplaced a decimal point to make 26,000 out of 2600. The article does point out that these "hot companions" are hotter than the stars they orbit so either is possible... which is almost worse than nothing. At least I'm left trusting nothing. The highest boiling point for an element is 5660 C (10,220 F), for Tungsten. (The surface- the photosphere- of the sun has a temperature of 5510 C.)

Then a few paragraphs later we have this:
The primary focus of the Kepler telescope's three-year mission is to find out how common other planets -- especially Earth-like planets -- are in the universe. To do that, it is scanning a small chunk of the sky, about one four-hundredth of the night sky with more than 150,000 stars to look for planets.
Which part of the sky is "the night sky?" I presume it's roughly half, with the other half being day sky, and some small fraction being twilight sky. So are we looking at an eight-hundredth of the whole sky? Or did the reporter actually mean one four-hundredth of the sky?

Again, the issue is we don't know and can't know because this is just such an ignorant mistake that we can't trust anything in the article.

Followup, 01/05/10: My suspicion is apparently correct. The reporter moved the decimal, and didn't realize that 26,000 F was awfully hot. Nat Geo reports,
Dubbed Kepler 4b, 5b, 6b, 7b, and 8b, the five new planets range in temperature from 2,000 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,090 to 1,650 degrees Celsius), William Borucki, Kepler's principal investigator, said today during a press briefing at the American Astronomical Society's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Case 2: The Guardian, shame.
One in six Britons with high blood-sugar levels faces a greater danger of developing cancer, according to new research.
Any time you hear or read a comparative claim, you should ask "compared to what." Not out loud necessarily, but it should occur to you to wonder. Unless you're a reporter, in which case you just sort of randomly trot out numbers that look as if they say something, but don't.
Scientists at Umea University in Sweden, funded by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), examined blood sugar levels in 274,126 men and 275,818 women from Norway, Austria and Sweden with an average age of 44.8, then followed them up a decade later to see how many had developed or died from cancer.
So we're not talking about Britain after all; we're talking about Scandanavia. Fair enough. The real issue here, though, is the distinction between "significance" and "effect size." With a sample of 500,000 subjects, any difference at all is likely to be "significant." That is, statistically, one is likely to conclude that there is a difference between high and low blood sugar patients if there is any difference at all. But in the context of statistics, 'significance" tells you nothing about how big or important the difference is. In the context of this article, neither does the reporter.
They write: "Significant increases in risk among men were found for incident and fatal cancer of the liver, gallbladder, and respiratory tract, for incident thyroid cancer and multiple myeloma, and for fatal rectal cancer. In women, significant associations were found for incident and fatal cancer of the pancreas, for incident urinary bladder cancer, and for fatal cancer of the uterine corpus, cervix uteri and stomach."
The study is significant because it found that the increased likelihood of cancer occurred regardless of the participants' body mass index levels. It does not prove that blood glucose of itself leads to cancer, but it suggests that it might promote tumour growth by acting as a source of fuel for tumour cells, especially fast-growing, highly proliferative cells.
And of course, after saying explicitly that "It does not prove that blood glucose of itself leads to cancer..." we're off on a rosy little tangent about how to avoid cancer by being healthy and active and not getting high blood sugar or diabetes. As if those are nothing to be worried about. So in sum, this article says "high blood sugar may (or may not) raise your risk of cancer from some value by anywhere from zero to 100 percent. Is significant." Hey, I have an article idea: "Being alive tied to risk of death." And here's another: "Not having cancer increases risk of eventually developing diabetes."

Case 3: And finally, there's this:
Is Racism Gone for Good?

It has been nearly a year since the first African American took the highest office in the land as President of the United States. With President Obama and the first (black) family in the White House, does that mean there is no more racism in this great country of ours?
I have to say, I more or less agree with the good Reverend's points. But the only people who I've seen seriously claiming that racism has ended are the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world. I'm willing to bet the person who hung Obama in effigy thinks racism is over too. If Rev. Chappell is honestly hearing people say "Racism has been eliminated and the proof is the election of the first black President," he needs to find new people to hang around with. Seriously. If he's speaking hyperbolically, then he's convincing no one. The people who need to hear what he's saying aren't listening, and the people who agree with him don't need to hear him. And I don't doubt that there are plenty of people, like me, who are simply irritated by trite hyperbole.

Journalism isn't dying. It's committing suicide by auto-erotic asphyxiation.

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