Monday, March 07, 2005

Conventional Stupidity

I'm Back! I can tell you missed me. I will be a much better blogger this week I hope. A weekend of shoving my friends in and out of wedding dresses was exactly what the doctor ordered. (I guess the copious amounts of alcohol may have helped too.)

Yesterday CNN had a report on a "review" of 37 studies done by the federal government that consumption of dairy products alone was not enough to grow strong bones.

The study itself I have nothing to say about. I would like to talk instead about the implications of the types of reporting that one finds on these types of subjects. For while it may be entirely true that Milk really doesn't "do a body good" as we have been led to believe all of these years it is still a good source of calcium as the articles indicate on the inside.

Well as long as the article reports facts , what is wrong with a few sensational headlines?

When people make decisions they use methods called Heuristics, some of these heuristics are better at evaluating information than others, but for the most part none of them are good. One of them is called the Availability Heuristic. This method of decision making uses information that is easy to recall, disastrous events or things that have been repeated frequently. So while this information is not necessarily accurate is the easiest thing for us mere humans to remember.

Why am I talking about this? Well when I see headlines like Milk, You May Not Need it Like You Once Thought, or Study: Milk Does Not Help Build Strong Bones I am concerned. It is very likely that parents may remember these headlines and decide not to make their children drink milk, because what is the point? But they probably wont remember that the article suggested that exercise was necessary for building strong bones, or that there are other sources of calcium which is still a useful mineral for growing bodies.

There are much better headlines obviously, I have picked a few of the worst. But the Availability Heuristic is the reason that I pick on headlines specifically. The average Joe American wont remember what the article said, they will remember the main claims made by the headline and they will use it in future decision making. And so this is why I think that journalists should be more responsible in what kinds of claims they make in their headlines and their articles so as not to mislead the public.

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