Confusing Relative and Absolute Risk

firearmThe age of the internet has created an explosion of information, both good and bad. Popular media accounts of a recent study by the University of Nevada-Reno and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health provide a classic example. The result is a misleading headline that confuses relative and absolute risk. It shows the media bias that exists with gun control.

Reviewing the Study

The researches analyzed mortality data provided by the World Health Organization. Their analysis led them to the conclusion that American mortality caused by firearms is ten times that of other developed countries. But what does that mean? Let’s crunch some numbers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 33,636 deaths from firearms in 2013. That figure translated into 10.6 deaths per 100,000. Put another way, your chances of dying by a firearm are 0.01 percent. The implication from the popular media headlines of 10 times the risk means you’re going from 0.001 to 0.01 percent. Call me a skeptic, but that doesn’t sound like a much greater chance of being gunned down.

And that is a clear example of irresponsible reporting by the media. The 10 times figure sound scary; the 0.01 percent figure does not. To get the page views, the media opted for the more sensational headline. It relies on the fact that the average reader doesn’t have a handle on statistics.

The Agenda

But, wait, there’s more. The study was founded by an award from The Joyce Foundation. The foundation has admirable goals of better education and a clean environment. However, a mission for gun violence prevention should not include blatant misleading information. It rests on an agenda by popular media to sway public opinion through deception.

I find this aspect especially hypocritical. The anti-GMO sector is quick to point out a study funded by Monsanto as evidence of bias. However, making such a claim commits its own logical error via the appeal to motive fallacy.

Granted, there is a fine line between biased and unbiased reporting. In the case of Monsanto, federal law requires manufacturers to conduct studies of their products. They cannot opt out and wait for a third party to do the testing required of them. The fact that they publish studies isn’t an immediate accusation. They have no choice but to publish.

In the case of The Joyce Foundation, the award was a choice based on the foundation’s own publicly-stated mission. And yes, it cannot control how the media will report its findings. However, the misleading nature of the headlines suggests an attempt to deceive. But, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, some reporters have admitted being light in the stats department.

The Final Point

There’s one more point to add about the absolute risk of firearms violence. I quoted a figure of 33,636 deaths. However, that figure includes all firearm mortality, including suicide, hunting accidents, accidents when handling/cleaning, justifiable homicide (self-defense), and any other way a firearm could harm. Your chances of dying from gun violence are in reality much lower than 0.01 percent. Let’s all relax.

By Chris DR/

photo credit: Sig P226 via photopin (license)

bipartisan science bias

Bipartisan Science Bias

bipartisan science biasAs if misinformation and careless reporting weren’t enough, science must contend with bipartisan science bias. Yes, it exists on both sides of the aisle. The anti-science criticism is appropriate for both liberals and conservatives, according to a study by Ohio State University.

The Scope of Bipartisan Science Bias

Researchers found that both groups engage in anti-science bias if something treads on their political beliefs. The subject varies, but the anti-science bias exists just the same. Liberals reject nuclear energy despite the economic benefits and the support of scientists. Though the study didn’t address it, the same bias applies to GMO, which are safe according to the AMA, AASA, WHO, and the Royal Academy, to name a few.

On the conservative side, evolution and climate change struck similar discords. Of course, the media stokes the fire, creating its own kind of bias. For example, you’d think ant-vaxxers were more prevalent in society, but thankfully are not. And not everyone engages in vigilantism a lá Greenpeace. The media just likes to push our buttons.

The Harm of Motivated Reasoning

This attachment of political views and science is a dangerous component of bipartisan science bias. Emotions become the driving force in the decision-making process. We are losing our ability to view science rationally and unbiased. Everyone loves a good story, but I blame popular media for fanning the flames.

Psychologists call this kind of thinking motivated reasoning. With emotions in play, individuals can justify just about anything. They filter science with a sieve of misinformation, letting the good information flow away. It’s a horrible riff on throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

Because it would be one thing if we were talking about football strategies, but we’re also talking about big issues with grave consequences like fracking, climate change, and food security. (Yes, GMOs are an essential part of the latter.) While we need to consider the stakeholders’ positions, we also have to act with the best knowledge, namely, science—even if we don’t like what it tells us.

The popular media has its selfish motivations for acting as it does. People, however, often forget one of the most basic tenets underlying all science. Until next time. Chris DR
photo credit: Welcome to Wellington via photopin (license)