11 recommendations from social scientists to journalists reporting scientific findings

Twenty social scientists were asked to give advice to journalists covering scientific research; here are a few of the recommendations.

1) Journalists often want clear answers to life and social problems. Individual studies rarely deliver that…

3) Journalists are obsessed with what’s new. But it’s better to focus on what’s old…

6) There’s a difference between real-world significance and statistical significance

10) Always direct readers back to the original research

And yes, not confusing correlation and causation is on the list. This would indeed be a good list for journalists and the media to keep in mind; the typical social science study produces pretty modest findings. Occasionally, there are studies that truly challenge existing theories and findings or these shifts might happen across a short amount of time or within a few studies.

At the same time, this would be a good list for the general public as well or starting students in a social science statistics or research methods course. For example, students sometimes equate using statistics or numbers with “proof” but that is not really what social science studies provide. Instead, studies tend to provide probabilities – people are more or less likely to have a future behavior or attitude (and this is covered specifically in #5 in the list). Or, we may have to explain in class how studies add up over time and lead to a consensus within a discipline rather than having a single study provide all the evidence (#s 1, 2, 3 on the list).

A need to better measure financial support and wealth passed to Millennials

A look at how race affects the financial support given by parents to Millennials includes this bit about measurement:

Shapiro said the numbers of Millennials receiving support from family are “absolutely underestimated” because many survey questions are not as methodical and specific as those a sociologist might ask. “As much as 90 percent of what you’ll hear isn’t picked up in the survey,” he said.

Shapiro’s more careful research found this:

Shapiro’s work pays special attention to the role of intergenerational family support in wealth building. He coined the term “transformative assets” to refer to any money acquired through family that facilitates social mobility beyond what one’s current income level would allow for. And it’s not that parents and other family members are exceptionally altruistic, either. “It’s how we all operate,” Shapiro said. “Resources tend to flow to people who are more needy.”

Racial disparity in transformative assets became especially striking to Shapiro during interviews with middle-class black Americans. “They almost always talk about financial help they give family members. People come to them,” Shapiro said. But when he asked white interviewees if they were lending financial support to family members, he said, “I almost always get laughter. They’re still getting subsidized.”…

To many Millennials, the small influxes of cash from parents are a lifeline, a financial relief they’re hard pressed to find elsewhere. To researchers, however, it’s both a symptom and an exacerbating factor of wealth inequality. In a 2004 CommonWealth magazine interview, Shapiro explained that gifts like this are “often not a lot of money, but it’s really important money. It’s a kind of money that allows families to obtain something for themselves and for their children that they couldn’t do on their own.”

Two quick thoughts:

  1. Americans tend not to like to talk about passing down wealth but decades of sociological research (as well as research from others) shows that it happens frequently and is quite advantageous for those who have wealth passed to them. I recommend looking at Shapiro and Oliver’s book Black Wealth/White Wealth.
  2. Polls like those cited here from USA Today could lead to lots of problems just because the measurement is not great. Why not ask better poll questions in the first place? I understand there are likely limits to how many questions can be asked (it is costly to ask more and longer questions) but I’d rather have sociologists and other social scientists handling this rather than the media.

Why men are featured more than women in media coverage

Five sociologists argue the higher number of media mentions of men is tied to how leaders are covered and who gets to be a leader:

A related test of this could then look at social sectors where women are in more positions of leadership and see whether men and women have more parity in media mentions.

There are also issues here with causation going both ways. Leaders are at the top of social hierarchies partly because the media pays them so much attention. People could be in particular important positions – like leading companies or in top posts of governments – but not all of these positions get equal time. In other words, the media plays in important role in influencing who is viewed as an important leader in the first place.

Majority of Americans wrong about the decline in global poverty

Nicholas Kristof discusses the role of the media in contributing to incorrect knowledge about global poverty:

One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.

That’s 95 percent of Americans — who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty hasn’t doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).

When 95 percent of Americans are completely unaware of a transformation of this magnitude, that reflects a flaw in how we journalists cover the world — and I count myself among the guilty…

The world’s best-kept secret is that we live at a historic inflection point when extreme poverty is retreating. United Nations members have just adopted 17 new Global Goals, of which the centerpiece is the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Their goals are historic. There will still be poor people, of course, but very few who are too poor to eat or to send children to school. Young journalists or aid workers starting out today will in their careers see very little of the leprosy, illiteracy, elephantiasis and river blindness that I have seen routinely.

Kristof and a growing number of others have noted that certain aspects of life are getting better for many people – like decreasing violence around the world or lower crime rates in the United States – yet the general public is not aware of this. The media is certainly complicit but they are not the only social forces at work here.

Turning to my own discipline of sociology, several sociologists, including Ulrich Beck, Barry Glassner, and Harvey Molotch, have written books on the topic of fear. Yet, it doesn’t seem to get much attention from the discipline as a whole. Of course, sociologists are regularly pointing out social problems (critics may say even inventing social problems) and often trying to offer arguments for why people and those in power should do something.

If there is positive psychology, how about positive sociology? Here is a rumbling or two

Crime down in US but more mass shootings

What explains why violent crimes are down in the United States but public shootings are up?

The FBI attempted to narrow the definition in a 2014 report that focused on “active shooter” situations, defined as shootings in which an individual tried to kill people in a public place, and excluding gang- or drug-related violence. The agency found that 160 active-shooter incidents had occurred between 2000 and 2013, and that the number of events was rising. In the first seven years of the period, the average number of active-shooter incidents per year was 6.4. In the final seven years, the annual average rose to 16.4.

In these 160 shootings, 486 people were killed and 557 were wounded, not including the shooters.

The rise in active-shooter events bucks the general trend toward less violent crime in the United States: Overall violent crime dropped 14.5 percent between 2004 and 2013, according to the FBI…

Meanwhile, a just-released study finds that although the United States has just about 5 percent of the world’s population, the country has 31 percent of the world’s mass shooters. The reasons for these numbers are complex, researchers say, but the data suggest that the availability of guns, and perhaps the American obsession with fame, may be to blame.

The mass shootings are interesting in themselves but this is tied to a larger question about the levels of violence in the United States that has intrigued social scientists for decades. For example, in graduate school I spent some time working on research regarding the number of assassinations across countries. The United States was an outlier within industrialized nations. Or, if you look at the literature on the urban riots that took place in many American cities during the 1960s, you find similar questions about how this could occur in the United States while being more rare in other developed nations. In both sets of literature, social scientists debated the role of a frontier mentality, the availability of guns, levels of political conflict and inequality, among other reasons.

On a different note, given the amount of attention these mass shootings receive in the media, it isn’t a surprise that many Americans aren’t aware that crime rates have dropped or that the vast majority of public spaces are safe.

The culture wars have moved online

The culture wars may be raging most furiously in a new space and this has consequences:

The culture wars may have changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re over. Nowhere is this more clear than on the internet. Hartman’s culture wars were fought in national magazines, peer-reviewed journals, cable news shows, and in the halls of Congress: all venues with some degree of gatekeeping. Today, a broader swath of self-proclaimed culture warriors can engage in comment sections, on blogs, and on Twitter, where the #tcot hashtag is filled with echoes of earlier flashpoints. Whether the internet is simply a new, more broadly accessible forum for old debates about the meaning of America, or whether it is facilitating a new kind of culture war altogether, is not entirely clear. Nor are online spaces any less susceptible to the imperatives of capitalism than any other part of American culture. But if the culture wars are over, no one told their most energetic partisans: on this new frontier, the battle rages on.

If this is the case, it has altered the culture war landscape in multiple ways:

1. Increased the speed of battle. Now, new issues can pop up all over the place through text and videos on multiple platforms. Who can keep up with it all?

2. The old gatekeepers – traditional media like television, newspapers, and radio as well as politicians – have to scramble to keep up. This means they may race to the bottom or endlessly cycle through everything to stay relevant.

3. The culture wars don’t have to be about big issues but rather can be a larger series of micro battles. There may be no big “culture war” but rather an endless number of skirmishes involving small numbers of participants.

4. Anyone can participate with the possibility of being part of a larger conversation behind their smaller sphere. However, it is hard to know which of these skirmishes might blow up.

Sociologist: “Celebrity is a self-defeating construct”

With a new Amy Winehouse documentary out, several sociologists weigh in on the nature of celebrity:

“Celebrity is a self-defeating construct,” says Dustin Kidd, a sociologist at Temple University and the author of Pop Culture Freaks: Identity, Mass Media, and Society. “Celebrities are seen as geniuses whose creativity comes out of [personal narrative]. Working artists, more common but more boring, develop their creative work through a daily grind of creative discipline, practice, and revision that is balanced with a full, multi-dimensional life. Tabloid culture turns the artist into the story themselves.”…

In other words, though this might be obvious, the attention Winehouse got as she rose to superstardom, like Marilyn Monroe or Ernest Hemingway before her, actually changed what society expected of her as an artist: the public was obsessed with how her image as an iconic trainwreck was reflected in her music, not with the music itself…

“There’s no boundaries to who can weigh in on what you’ve done and what you are doing,” says Joshua Gamson, a sociologist at the University of San Francisco and author of “Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America.” “Your story is a commodity, so people are actually competing for the profit from that commodity … [Celebrities] try to stay in control of their story — that’s why they hire publicists, why they hide out — but that’s part of the deal with celebrity. It’s what keeps you successful.”

“The working artists who survive and thrive,” Kidd adds, “seem to consistently either avoid the tabloid spotlight entirely, or they present the media only with a contrived performance, like Lady Gaga.”

And as noted later in the article, we all get a little taste of this today as we can project what we want through social media and receive attention from both those who know us as well as join a viral realm where what we say and do might be picked apart by millions.

Yet, to me this seems to beg some basic questions about celebrity:

1. Do the people who were or are celebrities actually enjoy it? To be turned into a commodity sounds exactly like Marx’s idea of alienation.

2. What are the long-lasting consequences of being positively or negatively famous?

3. Since we have some indications that humans can only have about 150 stable relationships (Dunbar’s number), does having so much social exposure from celebrity inevitably lead to social and psychological problems?

4. So much of this celebrity push seems to come from the mass media – indeed, you couldn’t really have celebrity in the way we know it today before the mass media of the 20th century. Are people who consume less media less interested in or influenced by celebrity?

Nate Silver: “The World May Have A Polling Problem”

In looking at the disparities between polls and recent election results in the United States and UK, Nate Silver suggests the polling industry may be in some trouble:

Consider what are probably the four highest-profile elections of the past year, at least from the standpoint of the U.S. and U.K. media:

  • The final polls showed a close result in the Scottish independence referendum, with the “no” side projected to win by just 2 to 3 percentage points. In fact, “no” won by almost 11 percentage points.
  • Although polls correctly implied that Republicans were favored to win the Senate in the 2014 U.S. midterms, they nevertheless significantly underestimated the GOP’s performance. Republicans’ margins over Democrats were about 4 points better than the polls in the average Senate race.
  • Pre-election polls badly underestimated Likud’s performance in the Israeli legislative elections earlier this year, projecting the party to about 22 seats in the Knesset when it in fact won 30. (Exit polls on election night weren’t very good either.)

At least the polls got the 2012 U.S. presidential election right? Well, sort of. They correctly predicted President Obama to be re-elected. But Obama beat the final polling averages by about 3 points nationwide. Had the error run in the other direction, Mitt Romney would have won the popular vote and perhaps the Electoral College.

Perhaps it’s just been a run of bad luck. But there are lots of reasons to worry about the state of the polling industry. Voters are becoming harder to contact, especially on landline telephones. Online polls have become commonplace, but some eschew probability sampling, historically the bedrock of polling methodology. And in the U.S., some pollsters have been caught withholding results when they differ from other surveys, “herding” toward a false consensus about a race instead of behaving independently. There may be more difficult times ahead for the polling industry.

It sounds like there are multiple areas for improvement:

1. Methodology. How can polls reach the average citizen two decades into the 21st century? How can they collect representative samples?

2. Behavior across the pollsters, the media, and political operatives. How are these polls reported? Is the media more interested in political horse races than accurate poll results? Who can be viewed as an objective polling organization? Who can be viewed as an objective source for reporting and interpreting polling figures?

3. A decision for academics as well as pollsters: how accurate should polls be (what are the upper bounds for margins of error)? Should there be penalties for work that doesn’t accurately reflect public opinion?

Where are the ubiquitous Chicago pothole stories?

As we emerge from winter, I thought today that I haven’t seen many pothole stories in the Chicago media. These are typically a staple of news coverage – see examples here and here. Here are some reasons why there may not have been so many stories this year:

1. The communities in the Chicago region did such a fine job filling potholes in recent years that the problem wasn’t so bad this year. This could be true; there are ways to address potholes that solve the problems for the longer term. Yet, the problems were acute in recent years and it sounded like municipalities were trying to fix things as quickly as possible plus there were added costs with salt supplies.

2. Other concerns have dominated the news. Perhaps it was the cold weather and snow cover. Perhaps the transportation news was dominated by future construction on areas like the Jane Byrne Interchange, I-90, and the proposed Illiana Expressway.

3. The weather has been so cold that potholes haven’t really formed yet since the roads were not thawing and freezing. Perhaps the potholes will really start emerging this week.

4. Perhaps I missed all the pothole stories?

A reporter spends the night under O’Hare’s new air traffic patterns – and doesn’t report much

After recently learning of an uptick in complaints regarding airplane noise around O’Hare Airport, one reporter spends the night in an affected neighborhood:

On the horizon are five blinking lights, all destined for the runway that parallels Thorndale Avenue, which now handles almost half of overnight arrivals. A little south, coming in toward the Lawrence Avenue runway, are two more jets. As they converge overhead, it looks as if the Northwest Side were in the midst of an alien invasion.

At one point, the planes coming in pass overhead at the same time, and the whines of the engines bounce off each other in stereo. JP launches the noise monitor app on his phone and registers 86 decibels, which, according to the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, is roughly equal to the sound of a screaming child. The FAA claims the metric for “significant” jet noise—meaning the amount at which homeowners can be eligible for soundproofing subsidies—is a day-night sound level average of 65 decibels. But only those residences within the FAA’s noise contour map (Sauganash Woods and most other Northwest Side neighborhoods are not) qualify for the soundproofing…

Evening settles in, and JP and I sit in his family room to watch the Bears-Packers game. Every once in a while, a plane whizzes by, which actually provides a welcome distraction from the historic pummeling the Packers are giving the Bears. After the game, my hosts head to bed, and I try to get some sleep on the couch.

A few minutes later, around 11, the jets start rumbling by again, often in 30-second intervals. Using radar and tracking apps on my iPhone, I watch the dots as they approach: At 11:55, a Boeing 747 Yangtze River Express from Shanghai blows in at 1,300 feet. At 11:56, an Airbus from Phoenix roars over the house. The last plane I see on the screen before dozing off at 12:30 a.m. is a Cessna coming in from Green Bay. (Jay Cutler’s private jet?)

The general theme of the report is that some people’s lives are affected by these changes at O’Hare. At most, it suggests at least a few families, businesses, and communities are affected. But, we don’t hear if life is unbearable. We don’t hear if everyone in these neighborhoods and communities feels the same way. We don’t get a broader view from elsewhere in the region. We get a narrow slice of life with an uncertain conclusion.

Articles like these tend to draw my sociological attention because this one addresses (a) an area experiencing some significant change, which leads to differing reactions from people and (b) the issues at O’Hare represent an opportunity to discuss metropolitan-wide issues. Certainly, other areas in the country have similar issues, whether it is from airport noise or an undesirable facility nearby or because the powers that be decided to change things for the good of the majority. This particular case at O’Hare could provide an interesting comparison to see exactly how this balance between individuals, communities, and the region plays out. Yet, most of the media coverage I’ve seen so far tends to focus on individual complaints or relatively small communities.