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Official magazine of the Biological Sciences Society
National University of Singapore
The Mudskipper, Jul 95
To Believe, or Not to Believe
The Need to be Wary of Errors in Print


N Sivasothi, Zoology Postgraduate

British students cheat?
At the bottom of the front page of the Straits Times on Monday, May 1, 1995, the heading of an article read, "Over 50% of British students cheat". These words appeared in a large font, and captured the attention of many a reader by its appearance and content. Days later, friends still mentioned this 'fact', and the interesting anecdote about students swapping information via personal organisers during examinations. The article succeeded in making an impression, and this 'fact' will probably be propagated in future conversations.

A response by a professor from the University of Plymouth (Forum, Thursday, May 25, 1995) was later published. He and his colleagues had conducted the study, and in his letter he pointed out that the article was misleading. Of the text which stated that "more than half of all British students cheat", he said, "We certainly did not find this". The only thing he mentions which more than 50% of the students admitted to, was "behaviour such as paraphrasing material without acknowledging the original source". This included the paraphrasing of lecture material, a practice which is acceptable in some institutions.

Besides the factual errors that the article apparently committed, there was evidence of subtle efforts (intended or otherwise) at misrepresentation. One was harping an unrelated fact into seeming relevance: the use of high-technology to cheat was mentioned in 4 of the 5 paragraphs. Surprisingly, this was not even studied during the survey! The single paragraph that didn't mention high-tech cheating indicated that the main researcher was heading a prominent-sounding professional association. The professor thought it fit to point out in his letter that the association had nothing to do with the study - obviously because the manner in which it the article phrased it suggested otherwise.

Without reading the original report of the study, it is impossible to determine the extent of the error committed by the news article. Essential details such as the number of students involved in the study and the schools from which they came remain unknown. However, while the explanations in the letter were not comprehensive, sufficient information was provided, indicating that there was no basis to the claim, 'Over 50% of British students cheat'.

Newspaper articles may easily misrepresent research reports
This example illustrates the need to be wary of newspaper articles describing academic reports. In an academic report, there is often a great deal of importance attached to the manner (wording) in which conclusions are phrased. A word out of place, and the meaning could change. Suggestions or hypothesis for future testing become statement of fact. Thus it is unreliable to depend on the interpretation provided by the media, which is motivated by different concerns.

One must realise that selective presentation of information is rewarded in the news business, since it helps transform dull reports into newsworthy material and exciting headlines. These in turn help the publication compete for consumers. The media is subject to this highly influential force which is contrary to basic beliefs of science.

There are no doubt better examples than the one quoted here - even the reputable Time magazine has been accused of similar sins: an article in the Straits Times (Friday, July 7, 1995) reports that they were accused of misrepresentation and exaggeration in their story about pornography on the internet, which made the cover of their July 3, 1995 issue.

Judge for yourselves
Many of these cases originate from distant shores, and we have no access to the original reports. It is surely easier to judge the accuracy of news based on local reports. The trouble is we hardly ever get to read news about Singapore written by foreigners. Obviously not, if the Straits Times is your primary source of news.

The answer may lie in your $5 Internet account. Netters were provided an education about the veracity of international reports recently, during the series of incidents that featured Singapore prominently in the news. We were able to access the internationally-distributed wire services reports, as well as leading articles and editorials from foreign newspapers.

Suffice to say, an appreciable discrepancy in the facts was observed. In some cases, the word 'distortion' would fail to describe the extent of the error. And this realisation was rapid.

"Don't believe everything you read" has become an adage of our time, reinforced by Internet, with its freedom to write what you will. Well, that's the way things are, so accept the bad with the good, but just beware.

Science and the coffee-shop
Newspapers may be blamed for the provision of misleading articles. But what about the propagation of unverified information? Often, we readily read the racy headline of the original story and neglect the dull small print that describes an apology about errors. When errors are corrected, that is.

This case about British students is a rare occurrence, for it was corrected by a letter to the forum. Even then, friends who parroted the article's headline had no idea about the correction. Therein lies the danger of coffee-shop talk, where you often encounter strong convictions based on unreliable second-hand information.

But surely as students of science, we are able to cope with this problem, to some extent? In theory, I believe this is possible. However, our personalities are all different, and those who are not naturally scientific will have the considerable problem dealing with an informal situation outside the lab such as this. Although training of the mind is often touted when we apply for jobs, I do not think that the undergraduate system inculcates students with a decent background in scientific thinking. Hence, we are probably just as susceptible as the next person to misinformation, or sell-a-vision advertisements. But that is another story.

Keep your slate clean
Is there a lesson for us students of science? We are involved with communicating information as well. I would say, try doing this for starters - never cite a paper you have not read yourself. If you are forced to do so, some indication must be provided for the reader. I have encountered people who think this is a novel idea! In science, one purportedly strives for the truth, or at least, an approximation of it. Trying to be accurate, even at the cost of sacrificing a sensational statement could simply mean attempting to get at this 'approximation'. And certainly, it's something worth striving for.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Chey Tan and Koh Tieh Ling for their comments.
 
© N Sivasothi, 2001