Why the Media Gets Social Science So Wrong

June 2014 was a bad month for media stories about social science. First, a study examined how gendered expectations affect the public’s interpretation of severe weather warnings about hurricanes. Second, a story rebounded around the world that wrongly associated domestic violence to marital status.

In the first case, researchers found that given the same information, people are less likely to see a hurricane as threatening if it’s given a woman’s name over a male name. International media ran with headlines saying, “Female hurricanes are deadlier than males.”

Many journalists failed to read the original study and speculated wildly, while other commentators indulged in sexist quips. The study was also heavily criticised out of context, ignoring the researchers’ aims, which was to examine how gender stereotypes affects how people take in specialist hurricane warnings.

Second, the Washington Post ran an irresponsible article by a sociologist who used bad statistics to argue women who are married are more protected from domestic abuse. International social science studies show this is not the case. Writing for the New York Times, sociologist Sara Shoener has conducted research of how the justice system deals with domestic violence cases and has seen first-hand the damage that this type of thinking creates: “Prioritising two-parent families tethers victims of violence to their assailants.”

As I previously mentioned, psychology PhD student Jane Hu called out this general poor reporting.

“Writers, we need to stay vigilant and look beyond the easy gender narratives. Readers deserve better.”

– Jane Hu

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