Friday, 30 June 2017

Correlation does not imply causation...

I read popular media and news articles and often wonder how people who write these articles can get the information so wrong. Many of these articles are in science and healthcare.

One of the most common errors are when journalists and/or bloggers zero in on any relationship implied by the authors as causational, definitive, and is "proof" that X causes Y and/or that X or Y exists and is true. Students are often taught in first year about the mantra "Correlation does not imply causation."

And yet, we see news everywhere saying:
a) Scientists prove the cause for MS
b) This is evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism
c) Cure for Alzheimer's Disease found
d) Musical training proven to make you smarter

The list goes on.

I sit and wonder.

Are these misrepresentations of the findings of the actual studies, blowing out of proportion of the data, and jumping to conclusions based on a pure misunderstanding of the data and studies?

Or are these ways to sell news, create hype, and further a cause / point of view?

If it is the former, scientists really need to work on making their work accessible. For starters, increasing readability of the text (use less jargon, write in lay language) would probably go a long way. The problem also probably lies with the lack of physical access to the papers, which hide behind "pay-to-view" journals. But then again, would anybody fully read them if they were accessible?

If it is the latter, well, it is hard to do something unless news channels and media (both online and print) say it is not acceptable and actually give training to their writers on how to report scientific studies.

Whatever the reason, I think scientists need to communicate more with journalists, and vice versa, in making news valid. We all have a responsibility to get this right.

No comments: