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Sex-Crazed Teens, Overhyped Abductions and Booze Bunk: Worst Science Journalism of 2006

Contact: Trevor Butterworth, Statistical Assessment Service, 202-841-2868,


WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 /Standard Newswire/ -- The Statistical Assessment Service -- a non-profit, non-partisan media research organization affiliated with George Mason University and committed to correcting scientific misinformation in the media - today announced its selections for the annual Dubious Data Awards, which go to the worst science journalism of 2006.




Toxins for Tots?


Just in Time for Christmas! The Dec. 13 issue of Time magazine warned parents to throw out all their soft vinyl toys, teethers, pacifiers, nipples, sipping cups, and baby bottles to avoid poisoning their children with phthalates, a family of chemicals that makes plastics flexible. This grinchlike recommendation came despite the fact that phthalates in toys have been cleared for children's use by both the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the European Union's Institute for Health and Consumer Protection.


Hurricane Blowhards


In the wake of Katrina and 14 other hurricanes in 2005, the media carried dire predictions of another big year for big blows - "distressingly like last year's" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution); "another tempestuous one" (San Francisco Chronicle). The AP cited a forecast of nine hurricanes, including five "category three's" (winds over 110mph) and 17 tropical storms. Even worse, global warming was going to produce more Katrina-scale disasters -- "an upward trend in hurricane intensity" (CBS Evening News) "all along our Atlantic and Gulf Coast lines;" (CBS Morning News). So what happened? In 2006 there were only five hurricanes, including two category threes, and nine tropical storms. And the media doom-mongering? Gone with the wind.


Girls Not As Wild As Hoped, Part I


Leapin' libidos, Batman! The media ran wild with a survey on spring break debauchery "all but confirming what goes on in those 'Girls Gone Wild' videos," according to the AP dispatch. The survey, commissioned by the American Medical Association (AMA), found that large majorities of college women and recent graduates said that spring break involves increases in drinking and sex, and "sizable numbers" reported having sex with more than one partner and blacking out or getting sick from drinking. Whoops! Despite their claims to the contrary, and their attempts to stonewall critics, it turned out that the AMA actually conducted a non-random non-scientific Internet poll of volunteers, only 27 percent of whom had actually been on spring break themselves.


Girls Not As Wild As Hoped, Part II


In February the Wall Street Journal reported that the consumption of alcohol among teenage girls increased by over 30 percent from 1999 to 2004. But alcoholic drinks were measured by volume, and included mixers as well as actual alcohol. Thus, a 6 ounce glass of alcohol was treated the same as an ounce of alcohol mixed with 5 ounces of orange juice. In fact, US government studies show that "binge drinking" by college age females has remained steady since 1980, and daily drinking has been dropping since 2002.


More Crocked Booze News


Both Forbes and the New York Times bit on a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), which claimed that almost half of the alcohol industry's revenue (almost 50 billion dollars per year) comes from underage drinkers, who consume over 20 billion drinks a year. For that to be true, the 36 million kids in the 12 to 20 age group must be consuming nearly as much booze as the entire adult population. If this seems unlikely on its face, do the math: If we accept CASA's claim that nearly half the teenagers in America are drinkers, each of them must each be consuming over 1,000 drinks per year, or almost three drinks a day, for CASA's numbers to add up.


Fishy New Car Smell


The Los Angeles Times reported that drivers who suck in that "new car smell" are actually inhaling dangerous chemicals that escape from polyvinylchlorides (pvc's) in their car's interiors, in a process called "outgassing." The Times relied on the complaint of an environmental group that didn't actually measure how much of the chemicals had outgassed in any of the new cars it tested; it just measured the amount of plastic used in the cars and assumed the rest. Moreover, the group claimed the chemicals were dangerous because they were harmful in massive quantities to fish in the North Atlantic. But risk assessments by the Environmental Protection Agency have found no danger to humans.


Miami Vice vs. Arabian Fights


It's no secret that a lot of people around the world think of the United States as an unusually violent society. And it's true that our homicide rates are far higher than in much of Europe, Canada, and Australia. But sometimes the comparisons get out of hand. For example, in November filmmaker George Gittoes made headlines in his native Australia with the claim that Miami is more dangerous than Baghdad. Gittoes, who is making a documentary comparing life in a Miami suburb with life in Iraq, was quoted by the Australian Daily Telegraph, "It is much worse in Miami than in Baghdad...people with guns, drug dealers leering at you... I knew I was in a war zone." The story was covered in the Miami Herald and other US media after Rep Tim Tancredo (R-CO) called Miami a "third world country" and "murder capital of the world."


For the record, homicides in Miami's Dade County totaled 171 last year, although it projects to well over 200 this year. Casualty figures in Iraq are a matter of great controversy. But according to Iraqi Body Count, the most conservative estimate for Baghdad was 810 violent deaths in September 2006 alone, the latest available figures. Thus, although Baghdad's population is over twice as large as Miami's, the chances of meeting a violent death are dozens of times as great there.


An Overly Convenient Poll


"The nation's top climate scientists are giving 'An Inconvenient Truth,' Al Gore's documentary on global warming, five stars for accuracy," the Associated Press announced in June. In fact every scientist contacted by the AP endorsed Gore's claims. Sounds impressive, until you reach the small print. The AP contacted "more than 100" climate researchers, of whom only 19 had seen the movie or read the book. And could it be that these 19 made themselves familiar with Gore's work because they were predisposed to agree with it? The AP quotes one who recalls telling his host at a special screening, "Al, I'm absolutely blown away." Whatever top climate scientists actually think about global warming, this survey is so much hot air.


The Kids Are Alright


Using a concealed-camera segment to show how easy it was for an adult man to get a little boy close enough to his car to abduct him, In March the NBC Today Show claimed that the number of "missing children" in America has risen 44 percent since 1982. But according to the Justice Department, which is widely recognized as the best source for such data, there has been no increase at all. In fact, there are signs of a decline between 1988 and 1999, the last years for which numbers are currently available


This is Your Brain on Porn...


Does porn cause brain damage? ABC News says so ... sort of. In an April report on anti-porn campaigns, one activist claims, "we'll demonstrate in the not-too-distant future the actual physical harm that pornography causes." But the main "expert" quoted to support the view that "you're damaging your brain" by consuming porn is ... (drum roll) an automobile executive. An expert on internet behavior then estimates that "up to ten percent" of male pornography viewers stop having sex with their wives - but where he got ten percent is anybody's guess. (No word on how many men don't need pornography to stop having sex with their wives)




Since its founding in 1994, the non-profit, non-partisan Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) has become a much-valued resource on the use and abuse of science and statistics in the media. Its goals are to correct scientific misinformation in the media resulting from bad science, politics, or a simple lack of information or knowledge; and to act as a resource for journalists and policy makers on major scientific issues and controversies. To find out more about STATS, visit