Thursday, August 04, 2011

Internet Explorer, Intelligence and Climate Change

The recent and much-publicised story about Internet Explorer users and intelligence casts an interesting light on the parlous state of journalism in much of the mass-media. On the odd chance that you missed it the story goes as follows: a psychometrics company releases a study that looks at browser usage and IQ tests, the results show that users of Internet Explorer score significantly lower on the online IQ tests than users of other browsers, the results are picked up and trumpeted right across the world and in all the big media outlets (both in print and online), finally the study is shown to be bogus and the whole thing turns out to be a hoax. Apart from the great Daily Mash headline ‘If you're using Internet Explorer, this is called a 'website'’, is there anything especially noteworthy to report?

I think there is, and it is directly relevant to much science reporting, particularly, but not exclusively, with respect to climate change.

The hoax was not especially elaborate. It appears that it consisted of little more than a purchased domain name, a plausible looking web site and some skills in crafting a press release. The media received the press release, look at the site and then went to print. Instant headlines across the world. Cracks began to show in the story, however, when careful readers and bloggers started digging deeper. It turned out that the domain name had only been recently purchased. The web site contained images stolen from another company. Nobody could be contacted directly at the fake company. This isn’t rocket science, it’s just basic fact checking and it fell to readers and bloggers to do the job that the journalists should have done in the first place.

Why was the story not subjected to critical scrutiny in the first place? Because the perpetrators of the hoax got two things right. First, they dressed up the original press release with lots of statistics, charts, breakdowns of results. In other words it looked scientific. It gave the appearance of being a piece of scientific research. Note that this was just appearance – as the BBC later reported:

Professor David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University's Statistical Laboratory, said: "I believe these figures are implausibly low - and an insult to IE users."

Secondly, and just as importantly, the hoaxers made sure that they had results that were attention-grabbing. And they were attention grabbing because they fed in directly to existing and common narratives. In suggesting that IE users were less intelligent, the story appealed to those who dislike Microsoft and at the same time allowed non-IE users to look down on their less intelligent fellow internet users. With these two elements in place, the story was a gift and the results were global coverage and plenty of discussion (and sniggering at dumb IE users).

If this sounds like a text-book example of science by press release, then it is. The fact that the story is junk is neither here nor there. The truth is that the press is full of such stories day in and day out. A good percentage of environmental stories are built this way, as are climate change stories. There’s the attention grabbing heading (It’s worse than we thought!), the chance to divide people into groups (believers/deniers, Firefox users/IE users), and the splurge of results. How much scrutiny is applied to these stories? How much analysis performed before the stories go into press? We have repeatedly seen this pattern at work with climate change and it’s one of the issues that drives the public’s increasing distrust of climate science (cf the latest Rasmussen polls).

There is also another fact that makes this story relevant to the climate change debate: the role of bloggers and readers. The hoax was outed thanks to the activities of people who applied some common sense to the published stories and did the donkey-work of fact checking sources. This too is a familiar theme, because we see it most clearly in climate change. Blogs like Climate Audit, Watts Up With That and more are active forums where readers apply common-sense and fact-check stories and research results. The scrutiny that science journalists no longer seem wont to apply is being applied instead by members of the public who have the relevant skills and experience. It’s the ‘many eyes’ theory of open source applied to science and it throws up huge questions about peer review as well as the relationship between some climatologists and the press.

So, rather than just being cause for a quiet chuckle, this story has wider relevance. At the very least it ought to make people think next time they see a headline about the some looming environmental disaster caused by increased CO2.

1 comment:

feroze said...

Unfortunately most peop[le are busy with professional sports covering the whole globe at all hour on live tv and if the is nothing in sports than some actor have a wardrobe malfunction. Plus all developed 'democracies' are at war with a fictious villain and the drama is hard to be unreported. Remember 8 hr.work8 hr. r&r 8 hrs of education.
Feroze Anwar