Skipping stones on a pond

One of the benefits of the Unsleeping Eye, beyond just collating information by topic of interest, is that it allows you to track the propagation of certain items. In this day and age when the word “viral” has become daily hyperbole, it’s interesting to watch the progression of certain “chunks” of social knowledge get hurled into society’s consciousness.

For instance, today I came across this article stating that “Morning People are Healthier and Happier than Night Owls”. Variants of this article are literally everywhere, including in Romanian and in Spanish as well as dozens of other language.

This is interesting to me because it shows how information gets disseminated. There are literally thousands of (reputable) academic journals in the world. Certain journalists with access to these suddenly pick one and decide to write about it (writing on health topics is largely the domain of freelance magazine writers), thus bringing a “bite size” piece of information into the public’s stomach.

The abstract from the original scientific study actually says:

A literature on young adults reports that morning-type individuals, or “larks,” report higher levels of positive affect compared with evening-type individuals, or “owls” (Clark, Watson, & Leeka, 1989; Hasler et al., 2010). Morning types are relatively rare among young adults but frequent among older adults (May & Hasher, 1998; Mecacci et al., 1986), and here we report on the association between chronotype and affect in a large sample of healthy younger and older adults.

Overall, older adults reported higher levels of positive affect than younger adults, with both younger and older morning types reporting higher levels of positive affect and subjective health than age mates who scored lower on morningness. Morningness partially mediated the association between age and positive affect, suggesting that greater morningness tendencies among older adults may contribute to their improved well-being relative to younger adults.

Besides the awful creation of the term “morningness” what you see here is that actually young adults who wake up early report feeling better than young adults who stay up late at night but currently few young adults do get up early. Otherwise older adults feel better overall but again the ones who wake up early feel better than the ones who stay up late.

Meanwhile this study of 700 some people is transformed in all of the media articles as “morning people are happier and healthier”. The second word “healthier” is complete bullshit because the study was published in the journal Emotion and simply tracked how the participants felt. They reported feeling happier but there’s not one word about being healthier. In fact, all the participants were pre-screened and only healthy adults participated.

Furthermore, the study simply tracked people reporting how they feel. It never once said “waking up early will make you happy”. It said instead “people who wake up early report they feel happier”. That’s a huge difference because it could be that naturally happy people wake up early, or that out of this relatively small group (700 people) the early risers had other reasons to feel happy (like they have a job to get to while the “night owls” might be unemployed), etc, etc.

And yet, tacked onto this facile simplification of a scientific study are all kinds of advice on how to wake up early and get cracking on your day and be more productive and all kinds of other extraneous garbage.

Not only do thousands of equally valid and useful scientific studies get ignored at the expense of a few that can be shoehorned into various media outlets but even other articles from the same edition of the journal Emotion, including a study showing that children who do better at language skills have a better handle on their emotions and a study that showed that angry people are more likely to make moral judgements of other people. Are these studies not useful or valid to people at home reading magazines and online media? I would think so. But unless you are willing to pay 12 dollars or have a subscription through a university, you can never read them yourself.

Meanwhile this cracked, slanted interpretation (let’s wake up early and be productive – it’s healthy, don’t ya know!) is being retweeted, liked and Google Plus’d and everything else, not to mention copied and re-copied into other languages (the Romanian article is just a translation of the English one) and other completely unrelated junk like don’t drink a lot of caffeine and do more praying get appended onto these articles until all the general public is left with is “wake up early = good, stay up late = bad”.

Just a small example of real-time tracking of these things but something I’m always interested in and perhaps some of you are as well. Just thought I’d show you a little bit “behind the curtain” of how the Eye works.

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3 Responses »

  1. Is the Eye Google Alerts? I’ve heard it can do some web tracking according to your interests, never tried it though.

  2. Coverage of science topics in Romanian media is depressingly bad. They will willingly manipulate the information into whatever makes a more “shocking” title and article, even if it ends up being a lie and completely misrepresenting the study or phenomenon it talks about. I remember one article that said coffee is bad for female health for some reason, but if you read the report it was based on, it clearly said the effect happened only in Asian women. The Romanian article conveniently skipped that part. And don’t even get me started with the old “Mars will get so close to Earth next week that it will look like a second moon”. This circulated in forwarded e-mails for a few years, which is not surprising, but I was shocked to eventually see it repeated on TV at some point.

    I suppose people write these articles so carelessly because they imagine that by next week, nobody will remember about them. But they get referenced in Wikipedia articles, which then get copied or referenced by kids writing school papers… and someone, somewhere, ends up believing all this load of bull. Maybe it’s no big deal when it comes to astronomy (which is very cool, but with very little impact on one’s life) but when it comes to health issues…

  3. The news coverage of science, especially health science is bad everywhere. See the lovely book “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre, a bestseller a couple of years ago.

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