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A Perfect Storm of Misinformation

I was going to post about the snarky, funny and even a little sad science journalism quiz in yesterday's HeadsUp, but once I started reading Mark Liberman's response in the Language Log, I knew that was where FairerScience had to go.

Math phobia, Liberman, suggests is one possible reason why so much research is reported so badly. As he explains. "I do realize that some people freeze up and stop thinking whenever they see a mathematical symbol or term (even something routine like r2 or p<.05). In this state of intellectual desperation, if forced by circumstance to pretend to understand what's going on, they clutch reflexively whatever simple-minded description comes most quickly to hand."

He makes a lot of sense. If you only know what an average is, when confronted with an average for group A and a lower average for group B, it is tempting to conclude everyone in group A is better than those in group B. If someone says the results are "statistically significant" and you don't know that statistical significance doesn't mean that a result is meaningful, just that it's real; then it is tempting to conclude that group A is A LOT better than group B and so on.

I'm reminded of when I was an expert witness on the Citadel sex discrimination case (a story that will have to wait for another entry). At a court recess, the attorneys called me over saying they had a question for me. The question, "Pat exactly what is a standard deviation?"

In response to that question I wrote a short piece Overcoming Test Anxiety: Measurement and Statistics for Lawyers and Others. If you've ever wondered "exactly what a standard deviation is" or even if you haven't, feel free to read it and pass it on to anyone who is, or should be, reading and using research on gender and science.

Liberman concludes his entry thus: "Unfortunately, this ignorance and pretense combine with darker motives of sensationalism and pandering to stereotypes, creating a perfect storm of misinformation."

I agree, but if we are ever to have FairerScience, we've got to do more than ride out the storm; we have to change the conditions that created it.