Monday, September 9, 2013

Sloppy Science Reporting

It concerns me when reporters get sloppy when reporting science news, or try to make the news personal in order to attract readers (do they teach that in journalism school?).   Consider the article on The Weather Channel’s website entitled “Which state is the worst for your heart?”   The obvious implication is that some states are better than others for my heart.  I clicked on the article just in case there really were some states I should avoid (no, not really!)  I’m sorry to say I came away disappointed, and here’s why.

The article ranks the 50 states from best or worst in terms of deaths from heart disease, based on statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (the CDC).  The data are legitimate, but the the title of the article is misleading.  The number of deaths from heart disease in a particular state does not necessarily mean that I would have that same risk if I were to live there.   For the most part, my risk factors are my own, regardless of which state I reside in or am traveling through at the moment.  Statewide differences in deaths from heart disease are a complex mix of factors, including genetics of the state’s population, differences in local diets, job stresses, environmental pollutants, and other as yet unknown factors, spread out over an entire lifetime.  The differences between states are interesting in that they may help us identify these risk factors, but they have almost nothing to do with me personally.

The article also makes no distinction between the past and the future.  Take for example, the following statement about the best state, Minnesota; “In this state, 36.3 residents out of every 100,000 will die of a preventable heart condition this year, according to the most recent CDC data available.”  Wrong! First, a fraction of a person cannot die (Thirty six point three people will die?).  And second, the CDC is not in the habit of trying to predict future deaths; it simply reports deaths that have already happened.  A correct statement about Minnesota would have read, “In this state, between 2001 and 2010 an average of 36.3 residents out of every 100,000 died of a preventable heart condition each year, according to the most recent CDC data available.”  See the difference?

These may seem like minor errors, but if we’re going to report on science, why not try to get it right?  I, for one, will not worry if I ever move to Mississippi (the state with the most deaths from preventable heart disease, at 95 residents per 100,000).  My risk factors, whatever they are, are already pretty well set.

For more on this subject, go to a previous blog post titled "Journalistic Bias in Science Reporting."

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