Journalistic Integrity

I am naive enough to think I remember a time when there was some modicum of journalistic integrity in the media. I am sure I remember a time when the news was reported in an understated, even handed manner. I am not so insane that I think the news has ever been really free of some element of spin and “PR” work, however it strikes me that today it is so endemic no one notices any more.

Two recent examples have highlighted how the use of English can create a massively different news item.

The first came up during a bored spell spend looking over regional news items and regional news papers. The Belfast Telegraph had an article on a man who had survived a horrific attack by the Shankill Butchers and apparently died of a stroke recently. I suspect the lazy journalists at the Belfast Telegraph have over-used Wikipedia as a source, which highlighted my initial concern. Before I go on, I should emphasise I am not disagreeing that they were ruthless, evil sadists and that this person survived after having both wrists slit is amazing.

The Wiki entry on the Shankill Butchers (today at least) reads:

The “Shankill Butchers” were a group of Ulster Volunteer Force members in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who abducted Roman Catholics usually walking home from a night out, tortured and/or savagely beat them, and killed them, usually by cutting their throats.

In the Telegraph it was similar, with the emphasis being on how the sadistic nutters terrorised the Catholic community. Interestingly, they are “credited” with torturing and killing 19 people, of whom 7 were Catholics. Given that, at that time in Northern Ireland, it is unlikely any of the victims would have been described as “atheists” it seems logical to say 12 of the victims were Protestants.

The Shankill Butchers killed 150% more Protestants than Catholics, yet almost all the media reports about them describe them as almost exclusively targeting Catholics.

The point I am trying to make here is not one group suffered more than the other and I am not trying to trivialise the suffering the communities underwent as a result of their insane behaviour. What interests (and worries) me is that by dismissing a whole spectrum of their activities the larger group of victims is marginalised to the point at which they cease to exist. Instead of describing this as a shared community horror, it is sold to the public as a 100% sectarian event, possibly inflaming relatives of the dead.

How can that be good for bringing the two communities together?

The next recent issue is unrelated. Listening to today’s Radio 1 news (yes, sorry) there was a bit in the morning where they talked about domestic abuse. The newsreader read out that the number of reported cases of domestic abuse has tripled over (memory hazy but 3 years seems what they said), however in an alarming manner he also reported “the number of convictions remains the same at 17%.” I cant find the exact numbers used but it was along the lines of 1000 has increased to 3000.

Wow. How terrible. The implication was that more cases were going to court but the “system” had not managed to secure any more convictions, and what a terrible legal system we must have if these people (who are obviously guilty because it has gone to court…) are getting away with it.

However, given ten seconds consideration and you can see the language used by the newsreader was inherently misleading.

The first part of the item gave a number. Hard figures. It might not have been a nicely rounded as 1000 to 3000 but it was something like that. This is something you can hang your hat on. The optimist will see this increase as people feeling able to report more abuse, the pessimist will see it as more abuse happening. (Or vice versa…). That is not the issue.

When the news reader stated the “number” of convictions had remained the same he then went on to give a percentage rather than an actual number. This is a significant issue. If we take round numbers, you can see there is a HUGE difference between 1000 reports and 170 convictions which has increased to 3000 reports with 170 convictions and 1000 reports / 170 convictions becoming 3000 reports and 510 convictions.

In the first example, it would indicate a problem and he would be correct that the “number” of convictions was the same. The second example uses the numbers the newsreader used, but the “number” of convictions has certainly changed.

If you want to spin a news item to make people worry about an ineffective legal system you say “the numbers haven’t changed” (which is, actually, a lie). Was that BBC Radio 1’s intention? One of the reasons this annoyed me, is that on getting into my workplace – filled with supposedly “thoughtful” and “analytical” people, I had several conversations about how the legal system was letting people down and despite more reports, they hadn’t managed to get more convictions…

The world is mad.

Teaching Bad Science

The levels at which bad science has penetrated our society are breath taking. Even teachers, who you would hope were able to teach the principles of good science to our kids, are falling foul of the woo and nonsense. Almost makes you despair for the human race.

Today, the BBC have reported that the Professional Association of Teachers are…

seeking an inquiry into safety concerns surrounding new wireless technology.

Shockingly, there have already been studies, inquiries and the like. Is the PAT unable to read the studies? Were there no science teachers available to explain the nature of scientific research? The mind truly boggles.

The BBC mention that the former Education Secretary pointed out the Health Protection Agency guidance was that there is no threat. Like all good woo-ist scaremongers, the PAT General Secretary replied with:

Mr Parkin said: “There is a view out there that you have no right to express concerns on such issues and that if you do, you are scaremongering or promoting so-called bad science.”

But he said that because some scientists were concerned about the risks, an inquiry was necessary.

Blimey – he may not know any science, but he is certainly an expert in woo, nonsense and debating skills.

Lots of people will start a sentence saying “I dont want to cause offence” then say something very offensive, “I dont mean to be rude” then say something rude and so on. Here Mr Parkin has started off saying “I dont want to scare monger with bad science” then scaremongered with bad science.

The first sentence is simply not true. People always have the “right” to be concerned about issues. Just because they are concerned does not mean it is not scaremongering or it is not bad science. Mr Parkin can express all the concerns in the world for all I care. For example, there is greater reason to worry about teachers abusing their pupils than the dangers of WiFi. Which concern should get priority?

As for the second sentence. Well… Because “some” scientists are concerned is not justification. This just shows Mr Parkin does not understand science. I could probably search through journals and find scientists concern about any topic, subject or technology he chose to mention. I am sure Mr Parkin is happy for children to be driven to schools – yet some scientists are concerned this is bad for their health. Some scientists are concerned that mixed sex schools inhibit children’s developments, conversely some scientists think the opposite.

Research has been carried out on the dangers of WiFi. It is valid research and presents little evidence of any risks for children. If future research shows differently, then the situation can be revised. Forming an inquiry every single time “some” scientists had a concern over things would be ludicrous in the extreme. If they are so concerned, the PAT can fund the necessary research… Unless they just want the government to reduce the education budget to carry out pointless inquiries…

This wonderful line from Mr Parkin really messed with my mind:

I have heard and read enough to make me concerned and I had been made aware of an accumulation of evidence which suggests that the non-thermal, pulsing effects of electromagnetic radiation could have a damaging effect upon the developing nervous systems of children.

The frequently-quoted current safety limits in operation refer to the thermal effects of such radiation and not the non-thermal effects.


Oddly, I am not sure if this is a result of the BBC’s editing or the way things were talked about at the conference, but it seems like the dangers from WiFi have been conflated with the risk of asbestos… Now that would be bad science.

[tags]Science, Bad Science, Scare, Woo, Nonsense, Teachers, School,Education,Health, Wifi, Electromagnetism, EM, Radiation, Asbestos[/tags]

Wifi Dangers

I dont have much time online, so I have pick and choose my ranting carefully now… The Will of Toutatis seems to have decreed that while I am mostly offline, the news is full of things which almost make my blood boil over. Bah. Humbug.

There is a long list of things which are stupid beyond belief in the media this week. I picked the post headline based on the furore from the BBC’s Panorama program which claims Wifi is three times more “dangerous” than mobile phone masts.  I didn’t watch the program myself, so my comments about it are based on the (mostly radio) news which picked it up.

For years there have been minor scare stories about mobile phone masts (cellphones for you colonials) causing all maner of problems to the people who live in their footprints. There has even been a considerable amount of rigourous scientific investigation into this. Sadly, for both the frightened and the media causing the scares, there is little to support the claims. Now, call me old fashioned but if you have 99 studies which show no ill effects and 1 which does, it probably means there are no ill effects.

Why in Odin’s Name do people focus on the outlier and demand that be considered as the “real evidence?” It is insane. It really is madness, and the BBC radio news about it was a cringeworthy example of it. There were “concerned citizens” calling on the Government to carry out an “inquiry” (as is the case today, if a dog craps on the pavement there needs to be a government inquiry into how and why it happened) and, predictably, there were “scientists” who wanted 15 mins of fame, demanding the same. All based on the same lack of evidence.

When I see things like this, I like to remember a pop-science programme I saw on television a few years ago (it was something like Brainiac but it wasnt brainiac), in which a group of “electrosensitives” were put in a house for two weeks. Outside was a broadcast tower. The subjects were told the tower would be on for the first week and off for the second week.

All subjects reported the “electrosensitivity” problems during the first week, which miraculously cleared up in the second. As they predicted. The kicker of it all was, the experiment was reversed. The tower was off when they thought it was on, and on when they thought it was off.

Now, I am not for one second saying that is the sort of thing which should be published in the Journal of EM Woo or whatever, but it goes a long way to showing how people convince themselves about something – and once they do it manifests itself in other effects.

This recent nonsense about WiFi is prime example, but pure comedy value can be gained from the “three times as dangerous” phrase. Radio towers are not dangerous, so what is three times zero.

I think I can agree with that.