Headline news

The BBC reports on a WHO report that social factors, rather than genetics, are responsible for the massive disparities in life expectancy across the world.

This is like saying that humans have been found to breathe air rather than treacle. I.e., It should be no surprise to anyone.

The WHO report webpage makes no mention of “genetics” as a possibly valid alternative explanation. Unsurpisingly. Nor does the BBC report, if you read past the headline.

So, why does genetics even get mentioned in the headline, as if there’s a legitimate debate over whether poverty or genetics is the main determinant of health and life expectancy?

Whatever the reason, the effect is that the lazy headline scanner – i.e., pretty well all of us readers – is left with a vague impression that poverty and genetics are almost equally valid explanations for global inequalities.

My today’s-imaginary-friend – the lazy headline scanner (OK, that’s usually me) – is also likely to be misled by the headline Arab warning after racist death. Hmm, doesn’t that sound – in the current climate – as if there has been a racist Arab threat? You can almost picture the people who inspired the twat-o-tron frothing at the mouth at yet another example of “political correctness gone mad” and so on.

However, this story relates to a 16-year-old language student from Qatar who was murdered in Hastings, apparently for being an Arab.

The “warning” is his uncle’s suggestion that he would advise other Arab families not to send their children to language classes in the UK. Which may not be a statistically valid conclusion about relative risk, based as it is on a sample of one, but I’m pretty confident you’d feel the same in his position.

So, no Arab actually made a racist threat. No Arabs even warned that they’d be taking vengeance for a racist death. In fact, the real story is that an Arab teenager was murdered by racists.

Not that you could guess from the headline.

It’s not that these headlines are deliberately targeted at stirring up the bigots. (The Daily Mail et al exist for that purpose and are so successful at doing it.)
But the general effect of such headlines is still misleading. They are just examples of the background noise in which mass stupidity can flourish.