Sunday, 20 December 2015

I Heard It Through The Grapevine: How Tabloid and Sensationalist Filters Can Change A Legitimate Scientific Study into Something Paranormal.

Ever come across a post or a story on social media or elsewhere proclaiming that science or scientists have "proven" some element of the paranormal? Often there is legitimate research behind the claim, but it's been twisted by tabloid journalists and bloggers so much that the end story barely reflects the original source.

Case in point.

I came across this post recently on paranormal Facebook page "The Haunted Informer". Naturally it peaked my interest. For any study to reach such conclusions it must have been incredibly wide-ranging, either that or the headline was complete hyperbole. I wasn't surprised by my findings, but it presents an interesting case study of what happens to a legitimate piece of science journalism when it passed through first tabloid filters, and then the filter of a paranormal hobbyist news site. Hopefully, this should demonstrate why the resulting audience is being deeply misled with regards to how and why studies such as this are being conducted.

To do this, I traced the story back from the report on Horror Movie Blog through the source it cites to, from what I can see its first appearance on the internet. I'll "play it back" chronologically showing what was chopped, added and altered at each stage. Links to the relevant papers and studies in dateline placed under sub-headers.  I will give each stage a score that reflects how close to the primary source the article is.

Primary Source: The Original Study

End-of-Life Dreams and Visions: A Longitudinal Study of Hospice Patients’ Experiences (Kerr, Donnelly, Wight et al, 2014) published in JOURNAL OF PALLIATIVE MEDICINE Volume 17, Number 3, 2014. I'm not going to delve too deeply into the study itself, but there are important details about it which any report should probably at least touch upon.

I'll score a point for each of following criteria, I'll remove a point for any significant additions that aren't alluded to in the primary source.

  • The purpose of the research. What does it set out to investigate?
  • Who is conducting the research?
  • The methodology. 
  • The number of subjects. 
  • The variation in the subjects interviewed. Age, gender, ethnicity, etc.
  • The location in which the study was conducted. The period of time it was conducted over.
  • The results of the study
  • Any significant limitations. 
  • Conclusions reached
  • Citation of correct sources, i.e: primary source. 
Fortunately most of this information is available, as with most scientific studies, in the paper's abstract, reproduced below, so any journalist or blogger worth their salt could easily access this and assess without a aptitude for reading such material and with little to no background knowledge. 

As standard, the paper lists any significant limitations with the study.
"There were some limitations to the current study. Many patients were already experiencing ELDVs at the time of initial enrollment, making it difficult to analyze the time course of this phenomenon. Limited research staff and the dynamic nature of a hospice inpatient unit (e.g., frequent death of potential participants) also made it impossible to approach every eligible patient. A portion of the patients experienced dementia or delirium as well as ELDVs; however, only three dream events were reported by patients with dementia. Future studies should more fully control for delirium, utilize a more comprehensive questionnaire, and interview patients who are less proximate to death to capture the phenomena as they emerge or change. In addition, the interrelation of delirium and ELDVs, especially in the last few weeks of life, should be investigated further," 
They could have highlighted some further limitations. Any findings of this study only applied to terminally ill patients receiving palliative care. The research is carried out in one location so its highly subject to cultural bias of the subjects involved which is likely to shared. Therefore it can't be extrapolated to all people in all situations. The likely reason that this isn't mentioned, is it's a given really.

Bear this in mind.

Scientific Journalism Source: Science Daily
Cited Source: Primary Source

The first thing to note is that both the study and the paper are clear that what is being discussed is dreams or visions there is no indication of anything supernatural. Its isn't even implied. 

Additions to the previous source

Quotes from the authors which obviously aren't in the paper, which aid the reader's understanding the the study and the processes involved. There's a good reason for them to be there, after all this isn't an abridged paper, its journalism. 

Score: 8/10

Journalist's Source: NewsWise. 

Cited Source: Primary Source

Newswise is a press release service and news wire for journalists, therefore this is probably the first port of call for most journalists. Unfortunately its probably as deep as most journalists will probe. This means that significant errors or omissions here will likely be replicated in subsequent reports. The report is exactly the same as the source above. Its not clear to me which article came first, I'd say its pretty clear that both sources either received the same information from each other or the same press release from Canisius College. Obviously, as this is the case, the word count is also the same.

Therefore, the score is unchanged.

Score: 8/10

On this basis, there's no legitimate reason why any of the following articles should score less than 8.

Tabloid Source: The Metro (Rob Waugh)

26 Oct 2015 4:23 pm
Cited Source: Not Given, likely to be above News Wise article

You'll probably be unsurprised to learn that it's at this tabloid stage that the major omissions and additions are introduced. It's no coincidence that up to now there's been no financial imperative to push "hits" or visits to the articles. None of the previous sources had advertisers to pander to. The Metro certainly does.

The first major change: The title of the article. The titles of the science source and the journalistic source were pretty much the same, "What dreams may come: End of life dreams may be comforting" and "What Dreams May Come" respectively. Now the title is slightly whimsical, and the decision by Newswise to drop the second half of the title makes it pure whimsy and less informative, but it's likely this is the title of Canisius college's press release. But that's a small sin when compared to the Metro's chosen title: Almost ALL dying people are ‘visited’ by dead friends in their final days, study finds.

Clearly. this isn't what the study says, the experiences of 66 people (or 58 if you consider the subjects who actually complete the research) all receiving strong pain medication within a hospital setting, in the Western world, in one city, one hospital, cannot be extrapolated to THE ENTIRE HUMAN RACE. The researchers themselves attest that this is a small sample size something Rob Waugh, writing the Metro article never mentions, indicating he never bothered to check the findings of the original paper.

Another addition is that of a ghostly picture (opposite) laughably titled "Ghost?", likely, when coupled with the deeply misleading title, to fool those who spot it on their newsfeeds or on the Metro's home page into believing this is in some way a paranormal story, which it clearly isn't.

The Metro's word count is also vastly reduced compared to the previous two articles, standing at just 139 words. To put this into context Waugh has trimmed 60% of the News Wise piece, the result being the omission of several aspects that are vital to the accurate reporting of the research. It's telling that the Metro manage to keep one of the only elements that even slightly suggests a supernatural element to the study. Obviously. this is robbing the following quote of the context that these are heavily medicated terminally patients here:
"Many patients said the visits ‘felt real’ – and that visions involving dead friends and relatives were the most common."
So what does the paper actually say about the occurrence of  "visions" of dead relatives?
"The categories included deceased friends or relatives (46%), living friends or relatives (17%), other people (10%), and deceased pets or animals, living pets or animals, religious figures, past meaningful experiences, and other content not listed (singly and in combinations, 35%). Note that the total percentage is greater than 100% because multiple responses could be recorded for each event (e.g., deceased friend/relative and living friend/ relative in the same dream)." (Kerr, Donnelly, Wight et al, 2014)
This really brings into sharp focus how poor Rob Waugh's reporting is here. Perhaps almost all of patients involved in the study experienced visions and dreams of dead relatives, but these this still accounted for less than half the total number of experiences. Also. the focus of the paper was not to ascertain how common these experiences are, but what effect they have on the patient's comfort level. Clearly Waugh didn't read the paper or completely failed to understand it.

Here's how the Metro stacks up. Not pretty.

Score: 3/10 But wait, let's make our adjustments for the addition of a hyperbole loaded title and the supernatural aspects. 1/10.

Enter the Blogosphere: HMB (Nadia Vella)
OCTOBER 31, 2015 11:02 AM

Cited Source: The Metro (26th October 2015) Oh Boy!

So the first change that should be noticed is the switch of the photo from Ghost? used by the Metro to an image that should be entitled Ghost! The image used reflects Vella's attitude to the story. You'll notice it reflects nothing of the actual paper. There's a ghost not a vague dreamlike image, no hospital setting, not a terminally ill patient but a soundly sleeping child.... at least the image chosen by Waugh demonstrated some ambiguity. But its due to his manipulation of the story that Vella has concluded that this is supernatural in nature. 

As for the other changes... well there aren't any. Vella actually has the nerve to blatantly copy and paste the Metro article and still credit herself in the by-line. Jesus, I know she's only a blogger, but have SOME integrity! She doesn't change so much as one word, she then links to her "source" the Metro! It's not your source you moron, it's your exact article with a different photo!

Score 1/10 minus 1 for changing the photo, minus 1 for being a complete hack -2/10

You have to pity the research team that conducted this study. By the time their years of hard work reaches the general public its so warped by ignorance and click baiting, sensationalism and bad journalism that its hardly recognisable. Think of those 66 people who took part in this study back in 2011. They spent precious moments, their last indeed, taking part in a study to help us better understand perhaps the most unifying and fundamental aspects of our existence. Did they deserve that sacrifice to be sullied?

The ultimate irony in all this can be summed by the sentence taken from the well-written paper that Vella and Waugh were probably barely aware even existed:

"Despite the value of such experiences, patients, families, and clinicians report their reluctance to openly discuss ELDVs for fear of ridicule and doubts concerning medical legitimacy" ((Kerr, Donnelly, Wight et al, 2014)

This fear is hardly going to be alleviated whilst serious studies such as this are being manipulated into paranormal click bait, the public's perception of these studies won't change if they see them reported in the Metro's "weird news" section, or on a blog that promotes the existence of ouija board demons, ghost sex and shadow people.