Magnifying Partisan Research with a Partisan Spin

Photo credit: Washington Post

Social scientific studies are increasingly infected by ideological bias and a crisis of unreplicable results. Compound that with the ideological bias of the mass media, which spin findings to advance their own partisan narratives, and you get articles like this one from the Washington Post: “Trump’s presidency may be making Latinos sick.

Trump’s presidency may be making some people sick, a growing number of studies suggest. Researchers have begun to identify correlations between Trump’s election and worsening cardiovascular health, sleep problems, anxiety and stress, especially among Latinos in the United States. A study published Friday using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the risk of premature birth was higher than expected among Latina women following Trump’s election.

This is the same kind of junk reporting of tendentious science that we see increasingly in Virginia, where newspapers report on “studies” showing “correlations” that supposedly demonstrate the existence of systemic institutional racism. It’s not impossible that some of the studies are valid. But they need to be subjected to much closer scrutiny before being accepted and propagated widely, as they invariably are.

The WaPo’s William Wan and Lindsey Bever briefly acknowledge that the “some of the research” regarding a “Trump effect” on the health of Hispanics has been “inconclusive,” and they do quote one academic expert as cautioning against drawing hasty conclusions. Otherwise, the article proceeds with the supposition that the “Trump effect” is real. “Taken altogether, some researchers say, the growing body of work suggests Trump’s short-term strategy of fanning immigration fears for political gains could be causing health problems.”

Let’s take a closer look at the original study cited by the Post: “Association of Preterm Births Births Among US Latina Women With the 2016 Presidential Election.” And let us accept the key statistical finding that the number of preterm male births among Hispanics increased from 10.2% before the election to 11.0% after, while the number of preterm female births increased from 9.2% to 10.2%. (I am not qualified to appraise the merits of their statistical methodology.)

The authors offer numerous caveats and qualifiers not noted in the Post article. The U.S. presidential election, the study authors write, “appears” to have been associated with the uptick in preterm births. The researchers “proposed” that anti-immigration rhetoric and policies were to blame, but acknowledge that “future research should evaluate the association of these actions with public health.”

The study says that the 2016 election “may have” acutely stressed Latino immigrants and their U.S.-born coethnic family members. Preterm birth “appear” to have distinct etiological linkages with material psychosocial stress, although “the biological mechanisms underlying this association remain unclear.”

The study authors acknowledge, but do not explore, an alternative explanation: “Birth outcomes may also be affected by changes in health-seeking behavior; a recent study documented increases in inadequate prenatal care among US nonnative Latina women coincident with anti-immigration rhetoric.”

Furthermore, due to data limitations, the analysis does not differentiate between native and nonnative Latina women, although the authors write they “anticipated” that, had the data been available, the effect would have been most pronounced among nonnative women.

The authors also acknowledge an issue related to their statistical methodology: They “measured gestational age based on last menstrual period rather than the preferred measure based on obstetric estimate.”

Finally, they concede that, due to a lack of data, they did not study other groups, such as persons of Middle Eastern and North African heritage, targeted by anti-immigration rhetoric during the presidential inauguration.

Most notably — a fact that the authors never mention — the study does not compare pre-term birth trends for Hispanics to the trends for whites, blacks, and Asians. Do other ethnic groups, adjusted for socioeconomic status and access to health care, exhibit the same uptick in pre-term births? For conjectures of a “Trump effect” to hold water, it is necessary to demonstrate that the trend for Hispanics differs from the trends for other racial/ethnic groups. Yet, for whatever reason, the study did not do so.

That is a lot of caveats and qualifiers.

I can’t help suspecting that the study authors found what they wanted to find, but I do give them credit for acknowledging the pitfalls and limitations of their data. As a journalist, I find the greatest fault with the Washington Post reporting of the study, which, with the exception of one partially dissenting remark, used it to advance a partisan narrative.

The Post says, “Democracy dies in darkness.” Yes, and the Post, which makes every public policy controversy a racial issue in order to advance the inflammatory Narrative of Endemic Racism, is the one smothering it with a pillow.

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10 responses to “Magnifying Partisan Research with a Partisan Spin

  1. Nice! “Same kind of junk reporting of tendentious science that we see increasingly in Virginia.” Do you also say that of the WaPo’s pursuit of the DEA database which they just obtained and released, showing the extremely high correlation between grossly excessive opioid distributions and deaths in, e.g., Norton, VA? Seems to me they are putting the good stuff out there along with the “tendentious.” I think your criticism is better directed at the apparently flimsy “partisan narrative” than at the people reporting on a study that seems to support it; certainly there’s plenty of identity partisanship out there today that’s worthy of ridicule.

  2. And Larry wonders why some of us don’t just accept everything the media tells us about the claimed consensus of climate scientists….while the WaPo editors wonders why fewer readers (of those not already gone) accept their more credible reporting. As long as they use the word “may” in the headline and quote at least one or two skeptics, they think it passes muster.

    I thought Obama Derangement Syndrome was distressing, but it was only the start. NBC scoured its archives this week and finally found an old film clip of Trump hosting Epstein at a huge party at down in Florida. It was 20 years old, a major crowd – but NBC ran it, and ran it, and ran it. They had to go back 20 years to find ten seconds of them together? That tells me they really are not associated at all. But…. Guilt by Association – another of those rhetorical fallacies so popular these days.

    If he wins, heads truly will explode.

    Just saw your comment, Acbar, and agreed, that’s good reporting and no question, the companies and some bad docs pushed that crap to the max for profit, caring not who ended up addicted.

    • No, I NEVER “wonder” why you’d not believe WaPo or other media and to be honest, I take just about everything in media with a grain of salt – and shockingly so – pretty much ever since I started reading media.

      Media just “publishes” whatever is “out there”. If some fool claims he/she has done some “study” – they report it. Where or not the person has credentials or the study has been replicated by others – is – up to YOU to ascertain BEFORE you put much stock in it.

      So-called “think” tanks left and right are particularly egregious purveyors of suspect stuff.

      Then we have folks who know how to access data and to plot it and they go nuts with “correlations” even as they opine that they know that correlation is not causation – but go right ahead anyhow!

      The world is full of “data” in the age of the internet and no shortage of those who will slice/dice it for all manner of reasons to convince others, including media of something …….no shock that lots of it is grade A poppycock … but then again – that’s your job – to not rely on any one source for anything – and especially so to feed your own biases.

  3. Just think how the media would react if:
    Trump lived on Confederate Avenue
    Trump dressed in blackface and hung out with a costumed Klansman
    Trump’s wife handed black kids cotton bolls and asked them to think about being slaves
    Was the former Exalted Cyclops of the KKK
    Called the former Exalted Cyclops of the KKK his mentor
    Said he invented the internet
    Flew at least 4 times on Epstein’s “Lolita Express” plane… and everyone knew it
    Allegedly raped two women
    Drove a car off the road and let a woman inside die
    Sold a significant portion of US uranium to the Russians
    Met secretly with the Attorney General on a tarmac to ask for favors

    It’s definitely good to be a Democrat when it come to the press.

  4. If Bezos shut down the Post tomorrow, the quality of American journalism would double. The Post has some good local reporters who still try to identify all sides to a story but beyond that they are just whores for the Democratic Party. The editorial board is probably comparable to that of Pravda in the Stalin days.

    My wife, who votes for Ds, cancelled our subscription back in the middle of the last decade. I’ve never hit the free online article limit since. And I grew up as a kid reading the St. Paul Pioneer Press (morning) and Dispatch (evening) religiously. I subscribed to the Omaha World Herald and the Des Moines Register and Tribune when I lived in those cities. Took the Post for years but it stopped being a newspaper dedicated to informing the public, raised its prices over and over and simply stopped delivering value. I didn’t question my wife’s judgment in canceling service.

  5. I keep this quote above my desk for daily reflection:

    “This sort of posturing may seem impressive, until one realizes that all science has to be paid for by some entity, and all entities have their own bias, including the government. Absent rare exceptions, there is never enough good science on any subject”.
    Michael D. Shaw, Junk, 7/25/2015

    Although a completely different beast from science funding, science reporting is worse.

  6. Some comments based upon experience with academic research:
    1) To be published it must be peer reviewed and peers do not automatically accept findings. There is often a lot of back and forth between reviewers who require changes before something can be published in an academic journal.
    2) Most studies have limitations and if you read the whole document, state those limitations. It is not unusual for a study to be limited to one sub-population due to time and cost.
    3) News sources never publish all the details provided in the research article or the dissertation or thesis. These are written using terminology and protocols that do not encourage the lay person to read them.
    4) While researchers may be careful to specify that the results cannot be generalized to the whole population, by the time the work gets through the popular media, it’s amazing what assumptions are made and how grandiose the conclusions/ impact claimed.
    5) Most studies can be improved but are limited by resources. We usually have to work on things taking a small bite at a time. Methodology can sometimes be improved based on prior studies, etc.
    In short, misunderstanding of the research process and of interpretations of the findings causes a lot of trouble. I can’t say if these studies are good or bad but I’m pretty sure that some things are getting misinterpreted, apples are being combined with oranges, and other problems result in conclusions that are not accurate. Be cautious.

  7. Here is an interesting insight into the blindness of America’s literati and mass media class living in their parochial and know it all bubble, this article published in the Washington Post the day before yesterday’s Mueller hearing:

    The Mueller report: An educational tool for teachers — and a surprising hit with book clubs

    By Valerie Strauss
    July 24

    Walter Isaacson is an award-winning historian and history professor at Tulane University, where he teaches a course called “The History of the Digital Revolution, From Ada [Lovelace] to [Mark] Zuckerberg.” Last semester, he said, he assigned the report from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — mainly Volume 1 — so students could learn how Facebook and Twitter were used by Russians and others to “polarize American society and influence our election.”

    “We discussed exactly what the Internet Research Agency did, who helped them, how the social networks responded, what could be done to prevent interference in the future, and what Facebook and Twitter should do,” he said.

    Isaacson is not the only educator to use the report — officially titled “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election” — as a focus of discussion in class. Teachers and professors have used it in history classes and in government, law, political science and other courses in high school, college and law school. Meanwhile, a host of book clubs have been formed to read, learn about and discuss the report, which has been a bestseller.

    Meanwhile, a host of book clubs have been formed to read, learn about and discuss the report, which has been a bestseller. … And on a website (that)… is a digital media brand for dads, writer Patrick A. Coleman urged parents to use the Mueller report to teach their kids about democracy. He wrote:

    Depending on political affiliation, politically-minded parents across America are either feeling dismayed or justified by the release of the largely toothless Mueller report. But as emotionally invested as some parents were in the findings of the special counsel, there’s a very measured and non-partisan lesson worth teaching kids at this inflection point in Trump’s chaotic presidency. The Mueller report shows, if nothing else, the mechanisms of democracy at work. Even as pundits fume or gloat on cable news, the system is proving out.

    Mueller is scheduled to appear Wednesday on Capitol Hill to testify before two House committees.

    For those educators who want to use the report but aren’t sure how … End Quote.

    What a difference a day can make in a age of illusion submerged in today’s Information Age. Question, might the Mueller Report taught to American children be biggest fraud in American history?

    For more on today’s disinformation threat see:

    • A glowing story about this story was published today in UVA Today. Here are some sample quotes:

      “Also at the University of Virginia law school, Professor Charles Barzun and a colleague plan to use the report for their seminar “Rule of Law and Threats to It” this fall, a school spokesman said. At Florida’s Stetson University College of Law, Professor Ellen S. Podgor is planning to teach a new course this fall called “The Mueller Investigation & Beyond.”

      David Alan Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford University, said he thinks “students should read the report for the same reason everyone in America should read it.”

      Can’t wait to see how these imminent law professors are going to teach this course. Perhaps as the matter progresses though phase two under the direction of Attorney General Barr they will be caught by surprise, and learn how the laws of this country when properly prosecuted actually work when not corrupted by the zealousness of partisan prosecutors. And how the threat posed to our democracy is far different from what they imagined.

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