Up until the 1980s, the public had a high level of trust in the media – tuning into anchors like Walter Cronkite on CBS news. He was a deeply respected and popular individual, affectionately known as Uncle Walter, at the time. When the public listened to him, they knew they were listening to a man of integrity who could be trusted to present all the facts and tell the truth.
Unfortunately, not everyone working in the media today has his level of integrity. In our age of mass media, click bait, sensationalism, opinion mixed with fact and a must-win mentality, the public no longer has the same level of trust in the media. So, what can we do about it?
The question – what is truth? – is a question on more people’s minds than ever before. Statistical thinking asks, and answers, that question. For journalists and public relations practitioners at the forefront of pursuing and communicating truth in a data-centric world, understanding the scientific way of doing so has become an urgent necessity. The study of statistical thinking leads to many insights into the nature of truth. One of the most important insights is that the truth is impossible to pin down definitively. The truth is an unknown quantity that we can pursue, but can never completely attain.
Statistics are estimators of truth. To ensure the statistics we derive from data are as close to the truth as possible, we have to ensure the data is of utmost quality. There are numerous ways errors or biases can be an inherent part of the data used in research. Therefore, the researcher and communicators of research are challenged to maintain the utmost level of professionalism and integrity. The researcher, whether consciously or not, may look for confirming evidence for what they want to be true rather than what is true. As gatekeepers between researchers and the public, communicators of research need the critical and statistical thinking skills to ask the right questions about the quality of the data.
Statistical thinking also trains the mind to see the results of research from an objective point of view. An illustrative example is the birthday experiment. When asked, many people are surprised only 23 people are needed in a room to have a 50 percent chance of two of those people sharing a birthday. Many of us are looking at the question from a subjective point of view – What are the chances someone shares a birthday with me?
When we step back to view the big picture of possible connections between any two people in a group of 23 people, we see that there are hundreds of ways (252 to be exact) any two people in the group can connect – a social network of sorts. Is it that surprising one of these connections would result in the two people sharing a birthday? It is very important to be able to step back and reason objectively with the possible values for what the truth may be, based on the statistics derived from the data.
The process of pursuing truth is challenging where uncertainty can’t be avoided. However, our uncertainty regarding truth can be measured, minimized and reasoned with. In my book, I lead you through this process one step at a time in a concise narrative and context you can relate to: the media. We begin with a critique of the media’s role in the autism-vaccine controversy. We go beyond the news headlines to the sources of research to critique the quality of the evidence for ourselves. In the process, we gain many insights into how to differentiate good research methodology from bad.
We learn how to reason with variation in data and the role chance plays in making decisions regarding truth in a population of interest. We learn how to reason with our uncertainty regarding truth through up-to-date and topical real-world examples. Finally, we question the integrity of two well-respected researchers and a pharmaceutical company as to how they conducted their research. We gain the insight to question the quality of research no matter where it comes from.
Integrity is a necessary condition for pursuing truth successfully. We can’t have one without the other. The path to truth is uncertain with many potential pitfalls along the way. However, if we pursue truth with good statistical thinking, while maintaining our integrity, we can conquer our uncertainties regarding truth and be illuminated by the insights gained into its nature.
When we communicate the results of research with the public, it will be with an authority and a confidence that what we are saying is true. What we say will resonate with the public in the same way the words of Walter Cronkite once did. If we commit ourselves to the hard work of pursuing and communicating truth in this way, I have no doubt we will regain the trust of the public and truth will rise up from the ashes of its current turmoil.
Anthony Donoghue is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Statistics at Columbia University. His new book is called Statistics and the Media: Foundations in Statistical Thinking Through Media Examples.