University press releases exaggerate scientific findings

A new study suggests exaggerations about scientific findings – for example, suggesting causation when a study only found correlation – start at the level of university press releases.

Yesterday Sumner and colleagues published some important research in the journal BMJ that found that a majority of exaggeration in health stories was traced not to the news outlet, but to the press release—the statement issued by the university’s publicity department…

The goal of a press release around a scientific study is to draw attention from the media, and that attention is supposed to be good for the university, and for the scientists who did the work. Ideally the endpoint of that press release would be the simple spread of seeds of knowledge and wisdom; but it’s about attention and prestige and, thereby, money. Major universities employ publicists who work full time to make scientific studies sound engaging and amazing. Those publicists email the press releases to people like me, asking me to cover the story because “my readers” will “love it.” And I want to write about health research and help people experience “love” for things. I do!

Across 668 news stories about health science, the Cardiff researchers compared the original academic papers to their news reports. They counted exaggeration and distortion as any instance of implying causation when there was only correlation, implying meaning to humans when the study was only in animals, or giving direct advice about health behavior that was not present in the study. They found evidence of exaggeration in 58 to 86 percent of stories when the press release contained similar exaggeration. When the press release was staid and made no such errors, the rates of exaggeration in the news stories dropped to between 10 and 18 percent…

Sumner and colleagues say they would not shift liability to press officers, but rather to academics. “Most press releases issued by universities are drafted in dialogue between scientists and press officers and are not released without the approval of scientists,” the researchers write, “and thus most of the responsibility for exaggeration must lie with the scientific authors.”

Scientific studies are often complex and probabilistic. It is difficult to model and predict complex natural and social phenomena and scientific studies often give our best estimate or interpretation of the data. But, science tends to steadily accumulate findings and knowledge more than a model where every single study definitively proves things. This can mean that individual studies contribute to the larger whole but often don’t set the agenda or have a radically new finding.

Yet, translating that understanding into something fit for public consumption is difficult. Academics are often criticized for dense and jargon-filled language so pieces for the general public have to be written differently. Academics want their findings to matter and colleges and universities like good publicity as well. Presenting limited or weaker findings doesn’t get as much attention.

All that said, there is an opportunity here to improve the reporting of scientific findings.

Losing something in the research process with such easy access to information

A retired academic laments that the thrill of the research hunt has diminished with easy access to information and data:

It’s a long stretch, but it seems to me that “ease of access” and the quite miraculous enquiry-request-delivery systems now available to the scholar have had an effect on research. The turn to theory – attention to textuality rather than physical things such as books, manuscripts, letters and paraphernalia of various kinds – has, I think, coincided with big changes in method. Discovery has been replaced by critical discourse and by dialectic.

Fieldwork was, typically, solitary. Lonely sometimes. The new styles at the professional end of the subject are collective – if sometimes less than collegial. The conference is now central to the profession, particularly the conference at which everyone is a speaker, a colloquiast and a verbal “participant”.

One can see something similar at the undergraduate level. I suspect that in my subject (English), some undergraduates are nowadays doing their three years without feeling ever obliged to go the library. Gutenberg, iBook, Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Google and the preowned, dirt-cheap texts on AbeBooks have rendered the library nothing more than emergency back-up and a warm place to work, using wi-fito access extramural materials. The seminar (the undergraduate equivalent of the conference), not the one-on-one tutorial or the know-it-all lecture, is the central feature of the teaching programme.

There may be something to this. Discovering new sources, objects, and data that no one has examined before in out-of-way places is certainly exciting. However, I wonder if the research hunt hasn’t simply shifted. As this academic argues, it is not hard to find information these days. But today, the hunt is more in what story to tell or how to interpret the accessible data. As I tell my students, anyone with some computer skills can do a search, find a dataset, and download it within a few minutes. This does not mean that the everyone can understand how to work with the data and interpret it. (The same would apply to non-numeric/qualitative data that could be quickly found, such as analyzing online interactions or profiles.) Clearing a way through the flood of information is no easy task and can have its own kind of charm.

Perhaps the problem is that students and academics today feel like having the quick access to information already takes care of a large part of their research. Simply go to Google, type in some terms, look at the first few results, and there isn’t much left to do – it is all magic, after all. Perhaps the searching for information that one used to do wasn’t really about getting the information but rather about the amount of time it required as this led to more profitable thinking, reflection, and writing time.

In response to criticism, sociologist argues academics need to explain better what they do

A recent Washington Post op-ed suggested college faculty do not work hard enough:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase. Many colleges would not need tuition raises or adjustments to public budget priorities in the near future. The vacancies created by attrition would be filled by the existing faculty’s expanded teaching loads — from 12 to 15 hours a week to 20, and from 30 weeks to 48; increasing teachers’ overall classroom impact by 113 percent to 167 percent.

Critics may argue that teaching faculty members require long hours for preparation, grading and advising. Therefore they would have us believe that despite teaching only 12 to 15 hours a week, their workloads do approximate those of other upper-middle-class professionals. While time outside of class can vary substantially by discipline and by the academic cycle (for instance, more papers and tests to grade at the end of a semester), the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth. And whatever the weekly hours may be, there is still the 30-week academic year, which leaves almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment.

One article about the subsequent conversation regarding the op-ed quotes sociologist Jerry Jacobs talking about how academics do not explain their jobs to the public well:

Faculty-baiting might exist because people have certain perceptions of how college professors operate, some experts said. “I do not think we do a good job of explaining what we do,” said Jerry Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Jacobs, who has researched faculty life, said that students often graduate from research universities without a clear understanding of what a professor’s job entails. “Meanwhile people see that the costs of college are going up and to them, faculty at colleges don’t seem to work 40 hours a week like high school teachers do,” he said.

In a 2004 article in the Sociological Forum, Jacobs found that full-time faculty members spend an average of just above 50 hours a week working. The data for his analysis came from the 1998 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty by the U.S. Department of Education and the faculty sample included 819 colleges and universities. “As a point of comparison, the average work week for men in the U. S. labor force is 43 hours per week and 37 for women. About one-quarter of men work in the labor force work over 50 hours per week (26.5 percent), along with one in ten women (11.3 percent),” Jacobs said. Many academics, of course, report working far more than 50 hours a week — and for adjuncts, the pay is a fraction of the figures cited by Levy, and many work without health or retirement benefits, or any job security.

It may be a job with some more flexibility than other jobs but there is certainly plenty of work for academics invested in their classrooms, research, and schools.

So what would Jacobs say academics should do? How can we explain to the public what academic life is like?

One option is to tie our roles to helping prepare students for jobs. However, this downplays aspects that aren’t as clearly vocational.

Another option: be more clear with students about what we do and how we do it. Instead of making our jobs like “black boxes” that are mysterious and capricious, explain what we are doing as we go along. Why should our students learn about a particular topic? Why do we grade the way we do? What do we do when we put together a research paper? I’ve tried some of these strategies and while students don’t seem overjoyed, some do appear to appreciate hearing the process behind it.

A third option would be to more clearly relate our teaching and research to everyday life, whether this is in the classroom or the community. While public sociology might be a sort of trendy term, it could help show people why what we do matters. We don’t just sit around and write for ten other academics; in our research we are hoping to draw attention to particular issues, influence public policy, help people who care about the topics, and interact with others who are also interested.

Fourth, we could defend the classroom experience. It is not easy to effectively impart knowledge and wisdom to other and to lead discussions. These days, it might be cheaper to do more online learning but something is missing, the community and atmosphere that can come from being in a classroom where both the instructor and students are engaged. This sort of criticism also is often leveled at teachers: “anyone could teach these lessons.” I don’t think everyone could.

Sociology experiment: mixing strong academics and athletics at Northwestern

Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh suggested yesterday that Northwestern University is facing a sociology experiment by wanting strong academics and athletics:

So continued America’s fascinating sports sociology experiment in Evanston: Can a major-college sports program thrive in an environment in which winning clearly isn’t the No. 1 determinant of success? As Final Four week begins, it would behoove every basketball campus to reconsider its definitions of thrive, winning and success…

So I reached a different conclusion about Carmody but loved the way Phillips defended his. I loved the idea of a Big Ten school espousing ideals more typically found in Division III programs, of an AD taking an unpopular route by taking a stand for something noble. I can applaud a decision I wouldn’t have made because of what it symbolizes.

On one hand, Northwestern shows it recognizes the Big Ten basketball arms race by working on plans for $250 million worth of necessary facility upgrades. On the other, it stayed true to an underlying mission colleges usually ignore by keeping a coach who does things the right way…

Roll your eyes and look up Pollyannaish if you wish. But ultimately Phillips’ decision embodied the mandate for college sports programs Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined in a news conference on the eve of the NCAA tournament intended to remind schools of their priorities. Theoretically, Northwestern’s stance also reflected the emphasis more Big Ten and BCS-conference universities must consider in light of the NCAA linking academic progress rate with tournament eligibility beginning in 2013.

Haugh defends Northwestern’s actions in trying to do both: have high academic standards and have competitive sports programs. A few thoughts about this:

1. I’ve heard a lot of this argument at both Notre Dame and Northwestern. The situations are slightly different (Northwestern doesn’t have the past football glory of Notre Dame) but the argument generally go like this: the schools need to lower their academic standards in football and basketball if they really hope to compete for national championships. Perhaps this is right – neither school is the kind of powerhouse that brings athletes in and spits them out. But, as Haugh suggests, the schools have some different priorities.

2. These different priorities are not just tertiary concerns: Northwestern is a serious academic school (as is Notre Dame). According to the US News and World Report rankings, Northwestern is the #12 undergraduate school (Notre Dame is #19), #4 among business graduate schools, and #9 among education graduate schools (among other high rankings). So this isn’t quite a high-ranking Division III school; Northwestern is a strong academic university where there are many things going on besides athletics.

3. In other sports, Northwestern and Notre Dame can do just fine. Let’s be honest here: what is really driving these arguments is football (and maybe a little basketball). Interestingly, both Northwestern and Notre Dame are not bad at these sports but also not great. Northwestern football has been improved since the mid 1990s but they are not going to compete for a national championship. Northwestern basketball just missed the NCAA tournament but they played in perhaps the toughest conference this year and had a number of chances to make their season really memorable.

3a. If you look at the Director’s Cup rankings which account for all sports, some more academic schools do just fine. For example, look at the most recent March 22 rankings: Stanford is #1, Duke is #28, Notre Dame is #34, and Northwestern is #63. Granted, the big public schools seem to do well in these rankings across the sports but it’s not like academic schools can’t compete in other sports. For example, Northwestern has been known in recent years for two other sports: fencing and women’s lacrosse. While these are not high profile, the athletes have proven can be champions as well as high-performing athletes.

3b. I wonder at times if Northwestern isn’t lucky on this front to be located in Chicago. Since Chicago doesn’t care much about college sports, schools like Northwestern and the University of Chicago (who used to be in the Big 10 but now competes at the Division III level) don’t have to go the athletic route.

In the end, I think Northwestern will be just fine. This is a sociology experiment that doesn’t have to happen – not all colleges need to be athletic powerhouses.

Sociologist Neil Gross counters Santorum’s charge about liberal colleges with research

Sociologist Neil Gross, whose work on this subject I have cited before, disagrees with Rick Santorum’s claim and argues that “college doesn’t make you liberal“:

But contrary to conservative rhetoric, studies show that going to college does not make students substantially more liberal. The political scientist Mack Mariani and the higher education researcher Gordon Hewitt analyzed changes in student political attitudes between their freshman and senior years at 38 colleges and universities from 1999 to 2003. They found that on average, students shifted somewhat to the left — but that these changes were in line with shifts experienced by most Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 during the same period of time. In addition, they found that students were no more likely to move left at schools with more liberal faculties.

Similarly, the political scientists M. Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker analyzed data from a survey that tracked the political attitudes of about 1,000 high school students through their college years and into middle age. Their research found that the tendency of college graduates to be more liberal reflects to a large extent the fact that more liberal students are more likely to go to college in the first place.

Studies also show that attending college does not make you less religious. The sociologists Jeremy Uecker, Mark Regnerus and Margaret Vaaler examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and found that Americans who pursued bachelor’s degrees were more likely to retain their faith than those who did not, perhaps because life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder can be rough in ways that chip away at religious belief and participation. They report that students “who did not attend college and two-year college students are much more likely — 61 and 54 percent more, respectively — than four-year college students to relinquish their religious affiliations.”…

The main reason for this development is that attacking liberal professors as elitists serves a vital purpose. It helps position the conservative movement as a populist enterprise by identifying a predatory elite to which conservatism stands opposed — an otherwise difficult task for a movement strongly backed by holders of economic power.

Is this enough research to satisfy critics or do the studies not really matter in the face of political concerns?

While these studies might show that students are not all being pushed into liberalism, I imagine conservatives might bring up other arguments. For example, professors have a certain level of prestige in society and so if a majority are proponents of liberal opinions, then society could be swayed in certain directions. Policy decisions might be made. Public opinion could be influenced (though this might require suggesting that Americans are easily swayed). Or another issue: colleges and universities receive federal funding and so liberal professors can access taxpayer money to promote their causes.

Academics tend to brush aside these arguments by suggesting they can still be objective researchers (and I tend to agree) regardless of their own political or personal opinions. But there is still a perception issue here that academics could work harder to dispel. At times, I think it wouldn’t take much: show some respect for religion, stop suggesting that people with traditional or conservative ideas are all ill-intentioned, hint that popular culture and the suburbs aren’t a complete wasteland, and don’t be condescending.

A quick overview of the liberal world of academia from a sociological study

As a writer looks at the political leanings of academia, much of the factual basis of the story is derived from a sociological study:

That faculties are liberal is beyond dispute. In a rigorous survey, University of British Columbia sociology Prof. Neil Gross concluded, “professors currently compose the most liberal major occupational group in American society.”

Gross got interested in this issue in 2005, when he was at Harvard, where president Lawrence Summers suggested that the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of math and science might be due to “different availability of aptitude at the high end.”…

So Gross and Solon Simmons of George Mason University surveyed more than 1,400 full-time professors at more than 900 American institutions. Only 19.7 percent of professors identified themselves as “any shade of conservative” (compared with 31.9 percent of the general population), while 62.2 percent identified themselves as some flavor of liberal (compared with 23.3 percent of Americans overall).

Gross found variation between disciplines. Social sciences and humanities contained the highest concentration of liberals. Conservatives were as numerous as liberals in business, health sciences, computer science and engineering.

I’ve noted before where sociological studies plus social psychologist Stephen Haidt, who is cited in this article, have discussed this topic. I still think it is a bit odd that Newt Gingrich has so much popularity with Republicans even though he is a former academic (see previous posts here and here).

Of course, the question regarding the politics of academia is “so what?” – how does it matter in the long run? The author of the piece cited above offers this conclusion:

Unfortunately, the estrangement will serve only to reinforce the lopsidedness of university politics, undermine the confidence of a large share of the public in expert opinion, and jeopardize the role of the university in public life whenever conservatives are in power.

These are not small matters, particularly as college costs continue to rise and students are told they must go to college in order to succeed in a changed world. In a world where we are told that everything is or could be considered political, this affects how researchers go about finding about and reporting on the truths they are discovering about the social and natural world. And this also must have an effect on how students view the learning process and the purposes of a college education. Does it simply reduce everything, from the perspective of all sides, to a naked struggle for power?

Newt Gingrich: visionary professor? Historian who would be a “superior president”?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting profile of Newt Gingrich’s days as a professor at West Georgia College. Two quick thoughts: he sounds quite ambitious as a young professor (applying to be college president during his first year) and it doesn’t sound like he followed social conventions (“brusque treatment” of his department chair, etc.).

I still find it interesting that Gingrich is using his academic credentials in his campaign:

Mr. Gingrich often says his experience as a historian would make him a superior president. During Monday’s GOP debate, he lectured “as a historian” on “a fact-based model” for revamping Social Security, citing the success of programs in Galveston, Texas, and Chile.

This could lead to some questions:

1. I thought Republicans/conservatives were more suspicious of academics who they often paint as elitist and liberal. So it isn’t actually the job or career itself that is the problem or the knowledge one has to acquire to become a professor – it is what political views the academic has?

2. What would be the best academic discipline from which to choose a President who was formerly an academic? Law seems to get a lot of attention but is this the best perspective or training to start with?

(This follow an earlier post in which I contrasted a potential presidential election between the two academics Obama and Gingrich.)