Questionable Science

In recent weeks, any science content in New Scientist seems to be purely coincidental, with more and more pages being given over to woo and thinly veiled mysticism. This weeks issue is a minor deviation from this pattern, although most of the “solid science” is to be found in the letters pages…

There is one article, in the Comment and Analysis, which I am unsure about. Reading it, triggers a “bad science” response in me, but I am aware this may be a bit hasty. In an article titled “The media make a killing,” Michael Bond looks at some of the issues around the coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting. This is a well written article, which carries a lot of the “self evident truths” which the print media seem to like. As I was reading it, though, a few alarm bells were triggered — but this is not a subject in which I am well versed so before I scream Bad Science, I would like second opinions.

The general thrust of the article is about the media (by implication visual media agencies take the brunt of the blame) coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting being irresponsible and encouraging copycats. (This follows an open letter by the President of the American Psychiatric Association, Pedro Ruiz, to the “news media.”) Like I said, this has the ring of something we feel is correct without further investigation.

Mr Bond writes: (Emphasis mine)

There is compelling evidence that extensive media coverage of a suicide is followed by an increase in the number of people taking their lives the same way. This pattern has been observed across the world. In a report released in 2000, the World Health Organization warned that repeated coverage of suicides tends to encourage suicidal preoccupations, particularly among young people.

Now this is actually saying something a bit different that the main thrust of the article implies. I have currently been unable to find the WHO report so I am going to try and be careful how I comment here. In a nutshell, my reading of the above and what reporting I could find on the net (quite limited really), is that media coverage does increase the quantity of people who commit suicide in a similar manner — but, and this is important, it has not increased the number of people who commit suicide. For example, if in a population you would expect 100 teenagers to kill themselves evenly spread over a variety of methods, after a high-publicity suicide the methods of suicide tend to become polarised making the publicised method more “popular” but there are still around 100 killing themselves. (Interesting, in a sad way, the global mortality rate from suicide is 16 per 100,000. That is terribly high)

If this is in fact the case, the claim that media coverage of a suicide encourages more people to kill themselves is false. All it does is make them kill themselves in a certain manner. Basically, you will not stop suicidal people killing themselves by not showing it on various media outlets. The article establishes the similarity between things which affect passive suicides (only kill themselves) and aggressive suicides (kill others first). I am pretty happy with this as the brunt of the research I have managed to look through so far does indeed support this.

However, there is (IMHO, remember this is a blog) another issue which crops up here. Mr Bond writes:

What especially concerns the APA is that the effect applies equally to suicides that are preceded by mass murder. In the months after teenagers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed a teacher, 12 students and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999, police received reports of hundreds of related incidents, including bomb threats and shootings. Students mimicked the killers’ behaviour and style of dress, and praised them on the internet.

Here, I think the relationships are stressed to the limit. There is a big difference between stupid kids who phone in fake bomb threats and the genuinely insane who go on the rampage with automatic weapons. Also, here he is using a generalisation to support the claim, which previously relied on specific correlations. Studies show that a well publicised suicide, lets say driving off Beachy Head for example, encourages other suicides to do the same. Here Mr Bond is implying that coverage of the Columbine shooting encouraged other kids to phone in bomb threats. This is a very different thing.

Also, and one of the reasons I think this is questionable science rather than bad science, there are (fortunately) not enough examples of High School rampages to determine if they are copy cat or independently caused. Any claims for either camp are based on very limited data sets and are probably quite dubious. Personally, I feel that the fact there are very few high school, high profile, shootings (considering the number of shootings in general) means this causal link is probably non-existent. I am open to other arguments though.

There is a bit of a strawman brought in by Mr Bond:

Cho himself invoked the Columbine killers before his murder spree, hailing them as “martyrs” in the video he sent to the NBC television network.

Cho was pretty much off the rails. If he had invoked Mickey Mouse it is unlikely to have reduced the number of people he killed. This seems to be an example of a false cause and effect issue. Did Cho kill because he had seen the Columbine killings on TV? I doubt that was the reason, but I am open minded.  The article lets down it’s otherwise well written logic when it comes out with:

Loren Coleman, who researches suicides and school violence and has written on “suicide contagion” in his 2003 book The Copycat Effect and elsewhere, claims the unrestrained media coverage of the Virginia Tech killings has made a repeat incident very likely.

Am I alone in finding this hilariously ironic?

Some of what Mr Bond writes, I strongly agree with. He identifies that media coverage of Islamic terrorism tends to inspire an Islamophobic backlash that often catches other minority groups. Again, he misses the irony of the APA making a fairly well publicised statement about the killings and how they shouldn’t be getting publicity. This is a shame, as it does show even the APA are publicity hungry like every one else 🙂 .

From a “cold hearted” science point of view, I would be interested in knowing how they can begin to quantify the effects of the media coverage. Are they predicting this will now mean there is going to be another shooting in the next month (some woo-sites make this sort of claim)? Or are they, as I suspect, heading down the “hedge my bets” route and claiming that this means at some indeterminate point in time there will be another high school rampage and the nutter involved will make some reference back to Cho? That would be bad science.

One last point, as is often the case with C&A, the article by Mr Bond identifies what may well be a major problem, but there are no solutions. Media outlets will never all agree to not publicise things like this, even if that miracle happened, there is still the internet and YouTube. It strikes me that this, and the letter by the APA are never going to achieve anything other than add to the publicity around the event.

[tags]argument, bad-science, belief, beliefs, culture, death, evidence, logic, murder, philosophy, psychology, science, society, suicide, violence, virginia-tech, who, world-health-organisation[/tags]