Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hidden deceits and trust

This is insignificant but interestingly revealing. Pew Research Center recently conducted a survey of some 1,000 adults regarding their level of basic science knowledge, as reported in Public’s Knowledge of Science and Technology .

The findings themselves are of a like with past such surveys. There were two items which I found interesting, one in terms of the finding itself and the second with regard to the fashion in which the Research Center chose to report it.

The first item was that:
Overall, men outperformed women on the quiz, though in many cases the differences are modest. On average, men answered 8.6 items correctly, compared with 7.7 items for women.
Given that men and women have the same IQ this is a little surprising. I can construct a story in which this is explained because more men than women go into the sciences and technology, and/or that many more men work and work continuously and that working outside the home might increase the probability that you are exposed to more and a wider range of science knowledge but I would have to set that against the fact that more women attend university than men. So an intriguing little mystery of probably no substance given the notorious fallibility of such surveys.

But the second, and I think the more fascinating, item was the way the Center chose to present the information. A couple of days ago I posted (Negative Capability and Dogmatic Simplists) about Keats' idea about Negative Capability, the capacity to take an impression of the world without imposing pre-existing assumptions on it. It appears that the Center has a Negative Capability issue.
Overall, men outperformed women on the quiz, though in many cases the differences are modest. On average, men answered 8.6 items correctly, compared with 7.7 items for women.
If you do the math, men outscored women by 12% which in most processes is a fairly material differential. That is not a modest difference. Clearly that is something that the Center did not want to emphasize and so, instead of reporting the percentage differential as they did with all their other results, they reported the raw numbers, apparently on the assumption or hope that readers would not do the calculation.

Why do that? Why not simply report the results rather than try and hide them?

It seems that there are three possible explanations. One - that there is a margin of error on all responses that is greater than 12% and so even though men outscored women by 12%, it is not a meaningful differential being within the margin of error. If the margin of error is greater than 12% then the whole survey is of virtually no value and Pew would obviously not want to bring attention to that.

Two - This a freak result arising from an unrepresentative sample. This would invalidate the whole survey, again something Pew would not wish to draw attention to.

Third - The result is accurate but Pew does not like the result itself or its implications. For example, one might wish to believe that there is no difference between the sexes or one might be concerned about the sociological and political implications (if men are better informed on STEM than women then that differential might contribute to other unequal outcomes).

This is much ado about nothing. Its just a survey with a suspect finding. But it throws some light on hidden biases. Little deceits such as this might explain why "Americans' distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly."

It would be ironic if a survey that could be read as designed to show up the ignorance of the American public, inadvertently provided evidence to support that the canny American public are indeed right to not trust the media.

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