Interview With Ben Radford #SSAWeek

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From the Token Skeptic Podcast – Women, Media And Science – Interview With Ben Radford – May 19th, 2012.

Are women easily fooled by ideal images promoted by the media? Does reporting on science findings contribute to girls feeling social pressure to conform to beauty and gender-stereotyped expectations? Should we trust media reportage of scientific papers, particularly those that concern women?

After reading Ben Radford’s articles on the Discovery website about a teenager protesting airbrushing in fashion magazinesgendered marketing in advertising and common (but mistaken) beliefs about the number of teen births, I found I had some questions on whether media and science work well together to inform the public – and just how skeptical we should be.

Benjamin Radford is the deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and a Research Fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He’s the author of hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics including urban legends, the paranormal, critical thinking, and media literacy.

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Kylie Sturgess:  Your latest article was about digitally altered photographs, and there’s a teenager who’s protesting how her favorite magazine seems to have nothing but digitally altered photographs. Do you think that there’s any value in raising awareness of how images are manipulated? Because, as a media teacher of high schoolers myself, I always seem to think that teenagers are pretty savvy already about what’s going on…

Benjamin Radford:  You’re exactly right. The PC answer is that “anything that raises awareness is a good idea“. My answer is that raising awareness itself is a poorly defined concept that’s thrown around all over the place and is basically meaningless.

For example, I still see awareness raising campaigns against smoking. Does anyone seriously in 2012 really not know that smoking is dangerous? Yes, I understand it’s a good idea to inform the public and educate the public. That’s all well and good, but if it’s just this amorphous, ill‑defined awareness raising program, what’s that about? In this case, the case you’re talking about, the public really greatly underestimate the media savvy and they frankly overestimate the gullibility of teens and teen girls in particular. In my research and my looking into, I think that girls and women are much more intelligent than they’re often given credit for.

That’s actually one of the things that drives me to write about this sort of thing, is that actually I’m kind of insulted at how stupid and how gullible a lot of the public many so‑called experts and in some cases prominent feminists give girls credit for. There’s sort of an irony in that.

That’s not to say that people aren’t manipulated. Of course. I wrote a book about the media manipulation, and certainly the media does have influence. But this notion that teens and teen girls are these zombie, mindless, gullible creatures is just bizarre and there’s no basis to it.

Kylie:  Yes. One of the reasons why I got into this is because, like yourself, I’m doing studies as well as doing everything else I do, and my first year psychology unit I had to do an assignment on anorexia and contributing factors. The research I found indicated it was less about the media pushing messages for women to be a certain way, more sexy, less fat and so forth – it was more about the women themselves interpreting what is out there and those women already having issues within themselves which then led them to engage in behaviors that are damaging.

Essentially, it wasn’t so much about the media influencing them, it was them bringing up issues that they already have and allowing themselves to be manipulated by the media, it seemed. Or, just picking up certain aspects of damaging ideas out there.

So is it really that easy to blame the media, and how do you encourage taking a sensible approach? Because I’m thinking about your “Hunger Games” anorexia article, for example, where it seemed to be, as you said, not so much about raising awareness as “raising panic”.

Ben:  No, you’re exactly right. The point that you’re making is one that many, many people just completely don’t understand when you’re talking about the influences of the media on anorexia, for example. Anorexia is not a contagious disease. You don’t catch it from looking at a thin model in a magazine. That’s not how that works.

Kylie:  We can’t just “blame Tyra Banks”!

Ben:  And, exactly as you point out, there can be influences, but it’s not a direct cause‑effect relationship. What you find is that, you’re asking about blaming the media, it’s very, very easy to blame the media. The media is a very easy target. Anybody can complain about the media. People complain there’s too much sex, there’s too much violence; there’s too much this, there’s too much that; there’s too many conservatives on the air, there’s too many liberals on the air. Everybody has some complaint about the media. People need to put this in context and perspective. The media have been blamed for social ills for decades. In fact, I would argue well over a century.

People complaining that the things that are going on around teen pregnancy or anorexia or violence. There’s always the perpetual argument that people who go out and see violent movies will go out and commit crimes. There’s also of course the long since discredited idea that pornography leads to rape.

For many years that was one of the staples of media influence in the canon, and it’s simply not true. There’s no truth to that at all. But, again, it’s very, very easy to blame the media, blame adult films, blame texts that you don’t like, blame this and blame that. One of the problems with this is that blaming the media is in many ways a dead end.

All right, let’s just say for a minute that, yes, we’re going to blame the media. So what? What does that get you? “Let’s blame Kate Moss for anorexia” - what are you going to do with that? Are you going to hold her accountable? How??

And this is one of the problems, is that when you get down to brass tacks and you say to people, “Fine, if you want to blame the media, first of all, the media is this amorphous conglomerate… - you know, the media covers everything. Blaming the media is like blaming society. How are you going to blame society? What exactly are you going to do about it?

In fact, I write about this a lot for Discovery News. You know, people’s exaggerated fears and the media’s influence. Real quickly, you know, there are a couple of examples that come to mind. When the movie “Black Swan” came out…

Kylie:  Yes…

Ben:  …With Natalie Portman about two or three years ago, I think it was, there was a bunch of concern that this film about ballerinas was going to encourage anorexia among women across the country. Women who went to go see this movie about this ballerina were going to suddenly become anorexic from seeing this. And of course, it was ridiculous. An even more ridiculous example was a couple years before that, there was a really low‑budget, fairly crappy horror film called “Orphan”.

Kylie:  Oh yes, I remember that, yes!

Ben:  And I wrote about that for Discovery News, because there was actually widespread concern… In a nutshell, it was a movie about a killer child, basically. It actually wasn’t, if you know the twist at the end!

But it was amazing, because there were protests from adoption groups who were saying, this movie is dangerous. This low‑budget, grade B horror film about a murderous young girl is going to put people off adoptions. And this was like a serious… You know, this wasn’t just some blogger in his bedroom. There were like, high‑profile official members of major organizations saying this. And of course, it’s just ridiculous.

Kylie:  I believe the directors of the film were thrilled, yes. Because it gave them a lot of attention for a rather C‑grade movie. And yet, it just completely led off into a media maelstrom, as it was!

Ben:  Absolutely, and they don’t realize how silly they look. Because again, they’re looking for ways to capitalize on concern, on the public’s fears. And they’re just looking for their 10 seconds of fame, and it doesn’t matter to them that their arguments are inherently ridiculous  . The idea that somebody seeing a horror movie about this murderous orphan is going to not choose to adopt a child in real life – it just boggles my mind that anybody would consider that to be a logical, real‑world argument. But they were putting it forth as one.

Kylie:  When it comes to the girl who wants to do something about what she feels is her favorite magazine promoting images that she thinks are unrealistic and manipulating – what would be a more practical thing to do? I mean, people have the right to protest, after all. What would you suggest that someone might do if they feel discomfort about particular images being promoted, maybe in something that does personally feel like it’s being directed to them, like, their favorite magazine?

Ben:  Sure. Yes, and of course people can protest anything they want. It’s a free country and you can be incensed about any number of things or nothing, as we all know! Yes, ultimately the responsibility, it’s like with all media. If something offends you, then don’t buy it. If you don’t like a book or you don’t like a movie, then don’t read the author, don’t see the movie. And in this case, for example, if your concern is that your favorite magazine, whether it’s Seventeen or Cosmo or Vogue or Entertainment Weekly, or any magazine in the world, if you as a consumer of that product contact the people and say, you know, I’m going to boycott your magazine, I’m not going to buy it anymore. And if this girl who wants to encourage so‑called more realistic images in the magazine, that’s great. I have nothing against that. I mean, I’m not dumping on her at all, I think that’s fine.

But I think that there’s a difference between sort of putting up an e‑petition and getting signatures, than just writing to people and just saying, look, I and x number of other people are not going to buy your magazine until this happens. And if you vote with your pocketbook, that’s the ultimate change maker. Because if no one’s buying the magazine, I guarantee you, if Seventeen Magazine was that concerned about it, and if they really believed that half of their readership wanted different images in their magazine, and furthermore they were going to stop reading the magazine, stop buying it if they didn’t get it, they would turn it around tomorrow.

Kylie:  Yes. When it comes to reporting about science and findings about issues involving women, you mentioned your article on teen pregnancy rates, for example. What factors help or hinder interpreting reports that we then read or view?

Ben:  Well, there are a couple things that I often come across. One of them is that often times journalists will simply cut and paste a press release. And you have to watch out for that, because sometimes ‑ I wouldn’t say all the time, but certainly many times ‑ what’s contained in the press release does not necessarily reflect what the report is about and what the study’s about.

And I’ve personally seen this many times, where I’ll read something, an interesting study about something where there are some conclusions. And I will try and follow up on it, and often times the only thing that’s available is a press release. You know, a one‑page thing summarising with a couple quotes. And sometimes I’ll have to contact the press contact there and I’ll say, you know, I want to see the original study. I want to see the study for myself, and usually they will send it to me if I ask for it. But a lot of times they’ll say, yeah, but you have the press release.

No, no. I’m not going to go by the press release. I want to see the study and I’m going to read through it myself. Often times I find there are important caveats and nuances that are not reported in the press release.

I understand it’s not always practical or possible for people to go and read the original study. I mean, I get that. That’s a lot of work and not everybody can read journal articles. But in terms of trying to think of the different ways to process the scientific findings and reports, you should recognize that again, a lot of times in news reports and even press releases important caveats are left out.

There will be a big study that makes a lot of press, and then when you actually look at the population that was used, the end is like 24 people were surveyed. Well, 24 people? I mean… !

But if you don’t look for that sort of information, and all you go by is the news stories and the press release, you’re not going to get that. The second thing I would say would be to look for the context. Very rarely is enough context given in news stories to really understand the significance of the new report or new journal article. The important thing that I always try to bring to it, is try to tell the reader how does this fit in with other information? What are the implications of this? Is this new study, this new report, is it in line with previous reports? Does it contradict them? Again, were there important caveats? Putting it in context is very important. So when we read these articles and we see from the stories, it’s important to think beyond just this one nugget in front of you.

It’s not just this one story. It’s not just this one article. This is a new piece of information. Hopefully it’s a good study, but it should fit into the broader context. You can’t really judge the quality of the study and its significance without putting it in context.

Kylie:  I guess one of the reasons why it always confuses me is because we have science communication as a field fairly well developed here in Australia, and I know that it’s also quite a big thing over there in the UK. However in America, it doesn’t seem to be as well known a field, or something that springs to mind when we say “Okay, science findings have to be communicated”. There are science communicators; people who are members of an official body, or people who are educated in that field who are getting the message out.

Ben:  Absolutely. That’s one of the problems is that certainly, here in the States, I don’t see that kind of recognition that’s even important or desirable. It’s just sort of a hoped‑for byproduct instead of being its own area that helps the public understand the significance of new science and science research.

Kylie:  I guess that also taps into another article by you which I absolutely loved. It was about girls mutilating, not loving their Barbie dolls. I personally felt a little bit confronted by this because I consider it “customizing” a Barbie doll myself!

Ben:  You like your dolls customized?

Kylie:  I wasn’t mutilating her!! I was making her into Debbie Harry rather than a Barbie doll. That’s my excuse!

Ben:  Well, there you go then. You’re a perfect example then.

Kylie:  So, how difficult is it to research perceptions of ideals promoted by toys, for example? Since we’re looking at issues that involve women, and that’s one that got me. It seems to be oh, girls aren’t feeling this way about dolls, and then my own personal perspective was quite different. I mean, how many people do you have to research to know the facts out there? What are some of the factors people have to consider?

Ben:  That’s a great question, and unfortunately especially when you’re talking about issues that have to do with gender, you find that frankly, the majority of the information out there is written from a particular agenda or perspective or bias. Now that’s not to say that we don’t all have our own biases and this and that, but so much of the issues again, particularly surrounding gender and these sorts of issues, they are informed and tweaked, and frankly guided by different agendas. You know, you’re trying to do this, you’re trying to do that. You’re trying to have girls be more accepting of their body, or you’re trying to have Barbie be more realistic or whatever your particular agenda is.

So much of this frankly is really science‑free. I don’t want to overstate that, but in many cases it really is. I especially noticed this when I was researching Barbie because I would come across many statements in books and magazines, some of them by very famous authors, that just took it as a matter of assumption that well, of course all girls love Barbie, and they consider them to be this realistic ideal that they feel that they should look at. I was interested by this. I’m like, well this is interesting, let me look into it. And as I looked more and more into it, I was looking for data. All right, evidence please. Where did you get this information? Who said that all girls love Barbies and they want to look like them?

What I found, after more than a year of research, is that there was really very little, in fact surprisingly little scientific research on the topic. There were a handful of studies, off the top of my head I’m going to say there’s fewer than six, or at least there were at the time, there may be more by now. But it was just strange to see this disparity.

For a claim that was so widely repeated and believed by so many people, there was really very, very little evidence supporting it. That was one of the problems, a lot of the times you have theories and ideas that may be true, I’m not saying they’re not true. But they haven’t been proven by empirical research.

They’re speculation. They’re theories. Again, that doesn’t mean they’re not true, it’s just that you can’t just treat an interesting idea or a piece of speculation as proven fact. Unfortunately in many cases that’s exactly what happens in this field.

Kylie:  Is it so difficult to step back from your ideologies, particularly if you think, “Okay, I want to promote women’s health. I want to promote the profile of women out there and encourage women to be stronger, to be more outspoken?” And say, “Well, unfortunately, the science findings don’t reflect that or they don’t reflect it yet or not strongly enough. For me to make it a conclusion.”

Ben:  It is difficult for a lot of people. Unfortunately what you find is that, as with many issues in the public, it’s certainly not just gender issues. There are all sorts of issues whether it’s global warming or anti‑vaccination. There are countless issues that the public has, at best, a tenuous understanding of and yet they have opinions about. As you know there’s no correlation between knowledge of a subject and your conviction on it! People are absolutely convinced by things of which they have little or no knowledge! This is one of those cases.

A lot of times there’s a reluctance on the part of researchers to really look too closely at this. I’m not suggesting there’s some sort of conspiracy, but to them the issue is framed and they already know what the answer is and they know what answer they’re looking for. Oftentimes they’ll guide and almost cherry pick the evidence to conform to that.

Some of the times it’s because frankly, in my opinion, in my research, they’re operating on flawed assumptions. If you begin with a premise that all girls love Barbie and want to look like her, then any research that you do that’s based upon that premise, if that premise hasn’t been proven, is going to be either wrong or certainly tenuous. And a lot of times, there’s a very strong and marked lack of examining premises.

And lack of examining assumptions. And again, I don’t think it is sloppy research. I don’t think they’re bad people. I don’t think that there’s fraud. I think it’s just difficult to be able to look beyond the way they’ve framed it already. And, often times, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge that, maybe, a claim is not as strong as it’s made out to be.

Maybe some tenuous… For example, people who claim that fashion models cause anorexia. If you pin them down, certainly the experts, they will admit to you, “Yes, this is not a proven claim.” But in the public discourse, it’s all sort of lumped into one, as though it’s a proven claim.

Kylie:  So is it as easy to blame the failings of science of getting the message out there, as it is to blame media’s interpretation of those findings?

Ben:  Oh. That’s a good question. I come from this area of straddling the areas between science and journalism. I tend to put more of the blame on journalists, rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly. Just because, so many times, I see journalists failing to actually critique and question experts. I’ve seen this in my case, many times. Where I’ll be interviewing somebody… When I’m interviewing an expert, for example, on Barbie, whatever else, anorexia, for example, and I actually happen to inquire quite a bit about the topic before I interview the person… In some cases, I’ve actually found some of these experts to be sort of taken aback. Because they’re used to being asked fluff ball, superficial questions by people who just read the press release.

Or don’t know anything about the subject. So when I say, “This is interesting. Can you explain this?” And, “Hold on here. How does this jibe with this other piece of information that I think is true?” They get sort of surprised. They’re taken off-guard that somebody who’s interviewing them is somewhat knowledgeable about the subject on a base line level.

And again, that’s a failure of journalism, a lot of times, to… You don’t want to challenge a source. If you’re interviewing a source about something you are trying to get information out of them. You’re trying to use them as an expert. Presumably, you’re not trying to debunk them or challenge their expertise. And yet, sometimes you need to do that.

You need to say, “Well, hold on here. That doesn’t really fit. Previous studies have said the opposite. How do you explain that?” And a lot of times that simply isn’t done.

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.


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