July 19, 2007

They just don't care

Well, I wasn't going to bother. After beating the drum again and again about the careless nonsense that BBC News passes off as science reporting, I was sick of the topic, and I bet that you are too. But in the wake of the breaking scandals about faked call-in shows ("BBC Suspends Quizzes After Problems Exposed", AP, 7/18/2007) and faked "documentary" video (Andrew Pierce and Emma Henry, "BBC apologises to Queen over footage", The Telegraph, 7/13/2007), I guess that a brief note is in order about the BBC's bizarrely false reporting on one recent story to which I have a personal connection.

Their story was "Men 'no less chatty than women'", BBC News, 7/5/2007, and it started this way:

The common notion that women are the more talkative sex has been undermined by scientists in the US.

Researchers who bugged 400 students to log their chats found little difference in word count between the sexes.

The University of Arizona study, in Science, conflicts with previous US research suggesting women talk almost three times as much as men. [emphasis added]

Now the key point about this work was that there never was any "previous research", in the US or anywhere else, "suggesting that women talk almost three times as much as men". Those numbers were invented (made up, concocted, fantasized, fabricated, ...), apparently by popular writers in the relationship-counseling industry, and then spread all over the world's media by Luann Brizendine's pop-neuroscience best-seller The Female Brain.

This was stated explicitly in the Science article (M.R. Mehl, S. Vazire, N. Ramírez-Esparza, R.B. Slatcher and J.W. Pennebaker, "Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?", Science, 317(5834) p. 82 July 5, 2007), and in Constance Holden's ScienceNOW piece in the same issue ("Talk About a Gender Stereotype", 5 July 2007), and in most of the rest of the press coverage. The case was made in detail in a Language Log post referenced in the Mehl et al. article ("Sex-linked lexical budgets", 8/6/2006).

Anyone could figure this out, given 30 seconds of web searching and two brain cells to rub together.

And as far as I know, no other news outlet in the world got this point wrong except the BBC -- not even the tabloids.

People often accuse the BBC of agenda-driven falsification of stories. Perhaps that's sometimes true, I don't know. But in the cases of science mis-reporting that I'm familiar with -- and there are many of them -- the problem seems to be that the reporters and editors concerned are arrogant, lazy, and not very smart.

I'm reminded of a Gamble Rogers story about a character named "Still Bill" who's trying to trade his hunting dog. The prospective customer decides to lead the dog out into the yard to take a look at her. She walks head-first into the door jamb; then she backs up and makes it through the door, but stumbles over the sill and tumbles down the back steps, caroms off the shed and fetches up against the fence, upside down. The prospect complains that Bill is trying to trade him a dog that's stone blind.

Bill's response?

"She ain't blind -- she just don't care!"

[After further thought, I feel that I should be careful not to judge the character of people whose circumstances are not known to me, merely by reasoning from the results of their actions. Perhaps the BBC News stories in question are turned out by low-level employees who are given only a few minutes to re-write each press release, and are strictly prohibited from doing any independent investigation, even as much as might be accomplished in a half an hour of web research, or a brief interview with an expert. If so, then all the blame belongs to the managers who have thus condemned their writers to produce drivel.

A review of the evidence suggests to me that the fault is more broadly distributed; but of course I don't really know.]

[Update -- Cosma Shalizi writes:

Reading this

"I should be careful not to judge the character of people whose circumstances are not known to me, merely by reasoning from the results of their actions"

made me think of this:



Posted by Mark Liberman at July 19, 2007 06:50 AM