November 28, 2006

Regression to the mean in British journalism

Ironically, just a day after the article by Stephen Moss in the Guardian, "Do women really talk more?" (1/27/2006), which quotes Dr. Louann Brizendine retracting her assertion that "A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000", the Daily Mail published an article by Fiona Macrae, "Women talk three times as much as men, says study" (1//28/2006), which presents Dr. Brizendine's assertion as fact. (For more on the relevant science, see the links here.)

Russell Craig, who describes himself as "a devoted Language Log reader", sent in this note about some of the ripples from the Daily Mail's belated splash into the sex-words pool:

On the Drudge Report yesterday was the following headline: "Women 'talk three times as much as men'...". Of course Language Log has alerted me to be wary of such claims. I checked out the link, which is a story in the UK Daily Mail talking about Dr. Luan Brizendine's infamous book. The opening lines:

It is something one half of the population has long suspected - and the other half always vocally denied. Women really do talk more than men.

In fact, women talk almost three times as much as men, with the average woman chalking up 20,000 words in a day - 13,000 more than the average man.

The story doesn't mention that the study has its nay-sayers, so I decided to post a helpful comment with a link to Language Log. This web site reviews and filters comments, so when the comment had not appeared later in the day, I sent in a new comment, this time with a specific link to some of your articles specifically discussing this book. When I checked back this morning, the option to post comments on this story had been taken away.

This does not say much for the quality of journalism at the UK Daily Mail, particularly their "Femail" division.

Well, as I've often had occasion to remark, the traditional media will never be able to fulfill their undoubted promise as an information source until they can find a way to impose some of the elementary standards of accuracy and accountability that we take for granted in the blogosphere.

[By the way, the misspelling of Dr. Brizendine's first name, which should be "Louann" with two n's, is not Russell's fault -- he got it from the Daily Mail article.]

[Update -- John Lawler points out that

just noticed that there are already 9 pickups of the Daily Mail article on Google News (grouped with one about women's response to porn; one wonders how the content-matching program was trained), from all over the Anglophone world. You can't keep a good factoid down, apparently.

An hour later, the number of pickups is up to 11. Do I hear 20?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 28, 2006 11:34 AM