When in Doubt, Blame the Journalist

Within minutes of hitting “publish post” on my mission statement, I found an article that reminded me of one of my worst pet peeves when it comes to data/science/studies of all types.  The headline read  “Keeping Your Name? Midwesterners Are Judging You”.  My ears (eyes?) perked up at this headline, as I am among those women who declined to change her name post-nuptial.  Despite knowing that Jezebel is not often the best place for unbiased reporting, I gave it a read.  

The article linked to a much more well nuanced article here, but the basics are as follows: students at a small midwestern college feel that women who don’t change their last names when they get married are less committed to their relationships than those who do.  This was interesting in part because the number of people who felt negatively about this quadrupled between 1990 and 2006.  
For the personal reasons listed above, I find this interesting.  However, when you look at the numbers (2.7% of 256 and 10.1% of 246 which Jezebel did include) and do a little math, you realize that this “jump” is a difference of 18 people.  
A few things to consider about this:
  1. I couldn’t find that this was published anywhere.  It seemed to be a sort of “FYI for the headlines”.
  2. Apparently there’s no data on whether or not this perception is true.  My bias would be that it’s not, but I couldn’t find data actually saying if the perception was correct.  This happens in many “perception” studies….they quote percentages who believe something with the implication that a certain belief is wrong without ever proving it.
  3. There wasn’t a gender breakdown of who those 18 people were.  If most were female, then isn’t their perception likely to be based on experience?  As in “well if I didn’t do it, it would be because I wasn’t committed”?  That not judgement of others, that’s judgement of self.
  4. Have any of their professors (or TV shows, or other media sources) recently made disparaging remarks about this?  18 people who all very well might know each other (the university surveyed was under 1000 students) could easily be influenced in their answer  by even one strong source.
  5. As college students, presumably very few of those polled were actually married.  From my experience in college, I would conjecture that this is a phase of life during which people are very idealistic regarding their future mates without having many real experiences to back it up.  I put much more stock in what people who are actually married use to feel out level of commitment than what someone who’s never walked down that aisle thinks.
All that being said, it looked like the study authors were careful to address several of these points (especially the “this is not a representative sample” point.  It was only in the translation that conclusions were drawn that were more dubious.  
Scientists have very little incentive to exaggerate the meaning of their findings.  They are in a profession where that could be very damaging.  Reporters for both old and new media have EVERY incentive to spin things in to good headlines.  Remember that.