Is Our Journalists Learning?

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Regarding Kanazawa's phrenology, I think this is a good point:


Over the past week, a handful of Kanazawa's fellow bloggers at Psychology Today have posted insightful and at times scientifically-grounded critiques of his research question and methodology. Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman has even done an independent statistical analysis of the data set Kanazawa uses to "prove" his theory, beating me to publication by a couple of days but coming to the same conclusions I have derived from my own independent analysis. 

Independent evaluation of an article's data analysis is a critical step in deconstructing scientific inquiry, and one the mainstream media rarely undertakes. As the founder of a science journalism nonprofit - and therefore an aspiring entrant into the mainstream media ranks - I am alarmed by this. Whether we agree with Kanazawa's assertion or are horrified by it, we cannot report on it without actually comparing his hypothesis to the evidence.

The main thing that bothered me about the OKcupid survey, from last year, was the willingness to uncritically extrapolate. But there was also the unwillingness to look at the deep--and frankly obvious--methodological problem with this extrapolation. Instead there was a rather nebulous, socio-historical debate about systemic racism, black women's bodies, and so forth. All of that was important, but it really would have helped to gird with some rudimentary understanding of the methodology of surveys. (This was also true with California and Prop 8.)

This is not a lecture. One reason (though not the only reason) I avoided posting on Kanazawa,initially, is because I just didn't feel like even attempting to see if I could understand the math. Having looked it over, it doesn't actually look that hard. Indeed, some of the biggest problems with Kanazawa's article are, like OKcupid extrapolations, fairly obvious. 

I think this is a natural impulse for reporters and bloggers. Reporters, as always, find it much easier to revel in moist "on-the-other-hand-ism," and the circus of pearl-clutching and offense taking, as opposed to doing the math. And many bloggers who cover the nexus of race and sex, find it easier to analyze the larger meta-narrative around black women. I'm sympathetic to the latter's aims. But nothing throttles quite like science. 

If I have one regret about dropping out of college, it's that I didn't get a degree in math, stats, or a science. Some day I plan to fix that.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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