Thursday, November 27, 2008

Do we believe what we read or read what we believe?

This was prompted by a section of Ben Goldacres "Bad Science" book where he refers to the following published paper titled "Importance of the lay press in the transmission of medical knowledge to the scientific community" by DP Phillips, EJ Kanter, B Bednarczyk, and PL Tastad.

"BACKGROUND. Efficient, undistorted communication of the results of medical research is important to physicians, the scientific community, and the public. Information that first appears in the scientific literature is frequently retransmitted in the popular press. Does popular coverage of medical research in turn amplify the effects of that research on the scientific community? METHODS. To test the hypothesis that researchers are more likely to cite papers that have been publicized in the popular press, we compared the number of references in the Science Citation Index to articles in the New England Journal of Medicine that were covered by The New York Times with the number of references to similar articles that were not covered by the Times. We also performed the comparison during a three-month period when the Times was on strike but continued to prepare an "edition of record" that was not distributed; doing so enabled us to address the possibility that coverage in the Times was simply a marker of the most important articles, which would therefore be cited more frequently, even without coverage in the popular press. RESULTS. Articles in the Journal that were covered by the Times received a disproportionate number of scientific citations in each of the 10 years after the Journal articles appeared. The effect was strongest in the first year after publication, when Journal articles publicized by the Times received 72.8 percent more scientific citations than control articles. This effect was not present for articles published during the strike; articles covered by the Times during this period were no more likely to be cited than those not covered. CONCLUSIONS. Coverage of medical research in the popular press amplifies the transmission of medical information from the scientific literature to the research community."

Ben Goldacre's conclusion is that, with reference to newspapers, "Despite everything we think we know, their contents seep in, we believe them to be true, and we act up them, which makes it all the more tragic that their contents are so routinely flawed".

I think it fair to say that it is an easy extension to make from newspapers to books and everything written on the web. What we read seems to influence us whether we like it or not.

No wonder religious folks find it so difficult to read opposing views and, at least to a certain extent, vice-versa.

Do you believe what you read or read what you believe? It would seem that we do indeed tend to believe what we read. Going further I think that we also tend to read what we believe because reading what we don't believe creates dissonance (nice new word this!) and that is uncomfortable.

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