Yesterday, the Daily Mail published a news story with the following headline: “Psychologists warn of ‘casual link’ between internet porn and rise in sex offences”. Hmm, a “casual link” you say? Really?! “Casual”? (Thank you to @EvidenceMatters and @decaux for pointing this out to me on Twitter.) Now, I guess this particular typo has a higher probability than most (what with being immune to computerized spell-checks and all), so we just might feel a little sympathetic towards the journalist and sub-editors involved. At the same time, it all seems a bit strange. The so-called link was described as “casual” throughout the text of the report. The term “casual” also appeared in the caption for the illustrative photograph published with the story. And in the main headline, “casual” was presented in quotation marks. (This last point means it would have received targeted and cautious proof-reading as, in these litigious times, newspapers take extra care to avoid materially misquoting people they have interviewed.) Overall, the fact that the editorial process didn’t notice anything wrong with quoting a scientific study as supporting a “casual link” almost makes it look as though people just didn’t know any better. It’s nearly as if that — while willing to take on the task of reporting about scientific research — they just weren’t overly familiar with the obscure technical terms that might occasionally be required. Terms like “causal link”, for example.
The Mail updated the online version of the article after about 24 hours. However, you can still see the term “casual link” used in the title of the webpage it is permanently stored on, and in the page’s url address (have a look at the header/address bars at the top of the window/tab on your browser when viewing the story). As it turns out, this wasn’t the only presentational problem that was discovered. In the revised version, part of the photograph used to illustrate “internet pornography” has been pixellated. This isn’t surprising, seeing as the original picture featured clearly identifiable sexual nudity.
But perhaps the most significant difficulty with this story relates not to typographical errors or the accidental publication of graphic pornography. Rather, the real problem here relates to the rather less trivial issue of the story’s actual informational content. Little things like: the failure to pick up on monumental weaknesses in the research itself; the complete lack of reliability and/or validity in the reported findings; and the resulting dissemination of wholly unwarranted conclusions that, more than likely, are dangerously misleading. Continue reading “When correlation does not imply “casualness””