Here's Why Reading Only the Headline is Dangerous

We often don't read much more than headlines when it comes to news.  There's data to back this up, but it was most brilliantly illustrated by NPR's April Fool's article, "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?" which was just a prank for those that didn't read past the headlines. Hundreds of comments that variously bemoaned the state of American intellectual engagement, insisted that the commenter did indeed read, or just attacked NPR for bias made for as much cringing as giggling and teaches us two important lessons:

  1. Be very wary of concluding anything when you see a headline, and
  2. We all probably have a natural tendency (some more, some less) to reach snap conclusions based on a headline

Here we're going to explore just how distorting different headlines can be for a single study. 

A reader asked us to take a look at Pew's recent publication about Americans' views on the conflict-or-not between religion and science. As we researched it, we actually had a lot of trouble drawing any firm conclusions from it (other than "people are really confused about this topic") -- in part because we think the survey design is imperfect. 

To get an idea of what conclusions others might be drawing from the study (as guidance for us), we looked at some other articles that interpreted it. Doing that research immediately pivoted us toward writing a much more interesting blog post: how amazingly diverse different headlines can be about the same study.

We'll explore the study itself in our next blog post, but if you're willing to trust us for now that "it's probably hard to draw any solid conclusions from this study," use that context as we present below a few headlines of some of these articles (don't feel like you need to go read these articles, despite our opening statements in the blog post: this is an exercise in headline analysis):

We seem to have some agreement forming that secular people see more conflict between science and religion than religious people, but the framing of those headlines is highly suspect: Pew didn't even ask whether a respondent was secular. They asked if you were unaffiliated, which meant you didn't subscribe to a particular religion--this doesn't mean atheist or "secularist," as the top two headlines declare. 

The Slate article's headline is wrong: the majority of highly religious people believe science and religion are often in conflict. (The majority believe that their own beliefs don't conflict with science, which we think is a problem with the survey design, as it's much less tasteful to say that your own beliefs contradict science--but more on that next time. This is also why the Washington Times and Voice of America articles can say the exact opposite things about the same study.)

This exercise is meant as an introduction for you to keep your eyes out when more politicized events occur: we may know intellectually that Fox and Vox are likely to give us very different headlines about a political event. But even with other, more mainstream outlets, the headline may give us a very skewed understanding of reality.

Worse, commenting about something to our friends on social media about a topic we didn't dive into just spreads misinformation: many of these friends will trust our interpretation and assume that we read it. (Let this be a lesson, as well, to those that are reading comments from friends on social media: they might not have read the article at all.)

Most of these events, issues, studies, etc are quite complex, and digging in is the only way we're going to be able to understand them: otherwise, we might as well not bother. Building these new habits in ourselves is going to be the only path by which we can make democracy work again.

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.