People: Our Own Worst Enemies (Part 9)

Note: This is part 9 in a series for high school students about reading and interpreting science on the internet. Read the intro and get the index here, or go back to Part 8 here.

Okay, we’re in the home stretch here! In part 8 I talked about how we as individuals work to confuse ourselves when we read and interpret data. Today I’m going to talk about how we as a society collectively work to undermine our own understanding of science, one little step at a time.  Oh that’s right, we’re talking about:

Surveys and Self Reporting

Okay, so what’s the problem here?

The problem is that people are weird. Not any individual really (ed note: this is false, some people really are weird), but collectively we have some issues that add up. Nowhere is this more evident than on surveys. There is something about those things that brings out the worst in us.  For example, in this paper from 2013, researchers found that 59% of men and 67% of women in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) database had reported calorie intake that were “physiologically implausible” and “incompatible with life”.  The NHANES database is incredibly widely used for nutrition research for about 40 years, and these findings have caused some to call for an end to self-reporting in nutrition research.  Now I doubt any individual was intending to mislead, but as a group those effects add up.

Nutrition isn’t the only field with a problem though. Any field that studies something where people think they can make themselves look better has an issue. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistic found that most people exaggerate how many hours they work per week. People who say they work 40 hours normally only work 37. People who say they work 75 hours a week typically work about 50. One or two people exaggerating doesn’t make a difference, but when it’s a whole lot of people it adds up.

So what kinds of things should we be looking out for?

Well, any time things say they’re based on a survey, you may want to get the particulars. Before we even get to some of the reporting bias I mentioned above, we also have to contend with questions that are asked one way and reported another.  For example back in 2012 I wrote about an article that said “1/3rd of women resent their husbands don’t make more money”. When you read the original question, it asked if the “sometimes” resent that their husband doesn’t make more money.  It’s a one word difference, but it changes the whole tone of the question.  Every time you see a headline about what “people think”, be a little skeptical.  Especially if it looks like this:


That one’s from a survey about conspiracy theories, and they got that 12 million number from extrapolating out the 4% of respondents to the survey who said they believed in lizard people to the entire US population.  In the actual survey, this represented 50 people.  Do you think it’s more plausible that the pollsters found 50 people who believed in lizard people or 50 people who thought this was an amusing thing to say yes to?

But people who troll polls aren’t the only problem, polling companies play this game too, asking questions designed to grab a headline. For example, recently a poll found that 10% of college graduates believe a woman named Judith Sheindlin sits on the Supreme Court.  College graduates were given a list of names and told to pick the one who was a current Supreme Court justice.  So what’s the big deal, other than a wrong answer? Well apparently Judith Sheindlin is the real life name of “Judge Judy” a TV show judge. News outlets had a field day with the “college grads think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court” headlines. However, the original question never used the phrase “Judge Judy”, only the nearly unrecognizable name “Judith Sheindlin. The Washington Post thankfully called this out, but all the headlines had already been run. Putting in a little known celebrity name in your question then writing a headline with the well known name is beyond obnoxious. It’s a question designed to make people look dumb and make everyone reading feel superior. I mean, quick, who is Caryn Elaine Johnson? Thomas Mapother IV? People taking a quiz will often guess things that sound vaguely right or familiar, and I wouldn’t read too much in to it.

Why do we fall for this stuff?

This one I fully blame on the people reporting things for not giving proper context. This is one area where journalists really don’t seem to be able to help themselves. They want the splashy headline, methodology or accuracy be damned. They’re playing to our worst tendencies and desires….the desire to feel better about yourself. I mean, it’s really just a basic ego boost. If you know that Judge Judy isn’t on the Supreme Court, then you must clearly be smarter than all those people who didn’t right?

So what can we do about it?

The easiest thing to do is not to trust the journalists. Don’t let someone else tell you what people said, try to find the question itself.  Good surveys will always provide the actual questions that they asked people. Remember that tiny word shifts can change answers enormously.  Words like “sometimes” “maybe” and “occasionally” can be used up front, then dropped later when reported. Even more innocuous word choices can make a difference. For example, in 2010 CBS found that asking if “gays and lesbians” should be able to serve in the military instead of “homosexuals” causes quite the change in people’s opinions:


So watch the questions, watch the wording, watch out for people lying, and watch out for the reporting.  Basically, paranoia is just good sense when lizard people really are out to get you.

See you in Week 10! Read Part 10 here.