Bad Statistics, Worse Science Writing

As if bad statistics – “bad science” being kind of weak shorthand – wasn’t bad enough in fueling conspiratorial anti-research sentiment (which the Net is teeming with), science-reporting-in-service-of-revenue comes along and makes it all flat out ridiculous.

The scientific validity of the recently-published “QWERTY Effect” – claiming that words implementing letters from the right-hand side of the modern keyboard tend to have a more positive mental association than left-hand words – was demolished within days of its publication. But in that short space of time, science writers vying for attention in a crowded media field really outdid themselves. As Geoffrey Pullum of the Chronicle noted in an article on this issue (also coining the wonderful term, “unresult”):

Publicity for the unresult of their paper in Psychonomics Bulletin and Review has garnered them some appallingly stupid press coverage (“The Keyboards Are Changing Our Language!“; Just Typing ‘LOL’ Makes You Happy“; etc.). The worst I saw was in the Metro, a free tabloid in Britain: “SEX is depressing—but only if you use your left hand,” they began. “Typing letters with your left hand conveys more negative emotions than typing with your right, British and U.S. scientists say.” (The authors say nothing about what “conveys more negative emotions,” of course.) And in conclusion: “despite their meaning, words such as ‘lonely’ cheer us up more than, say, ‘sex’.” (If there was ever a worse example of illicit inference about particular cases from aggregated results, don’t show it to me, I might cry.)

Couldn’t have put it better. Betcha it sold some papers, though!

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