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Is That Man Carrying A Lobster? The Illusion of Perception

by on June 9, 2015

The headline read “Poor Children May Have Smaller Brains Than Rich Children. Does That Tell Us Anything?” The source for this article was a study first published in the journal Nature Neuroscience titled, “Family Income, Parental Education And Brain Structure In Children And Adolescents.” Jordan Weissman rehashed the study in an April 17 story for Slate.com.

My initial reaction to the “Smaller Brains” headline was about libraries and their importance as a resource for the economically-challenged. My second thought was, “Wait a minute, in the past I have belonged to some of the income groups mentioned in the article and my children are doing quite well academically.”

Reading further, I found that the lead was buried in the fourth paragraph: “it’s also a little early to be drawing much in the way of conclusions from the paper, especially about the causes behind its findings.” In fact, in the fifth paragraph, Weissman writes, “It’s also important to note that while Noble and her co-authors found a statistically significant correlation between income and brain size, it was not particularly strong. . . as Noble put it to me, ‘You would never be able to look at a child’s family income and from that information alone predict their cortical surface area.’”

The conflicting information between the headline and information provided in the article was addressed in a March 20, 2015 article of the Columbia Journalism Review. “Three Tips For Understanding Science Journalism” points out why Weissman’s distillation of the study may be part of the problem with science journalism: “Be wary of sweeping claims. (And journalists: Don’t make these claims.)”

Interestingly, Colin Marshall posted an article in Open Culture about a week after Weissman’s. Marshall references the recent online Library of Babel, reflecting on Jorge Luis Borges’ story of the same title that asks “to what extent does meaning reside in the physical world and to what extent does it reside in our mind?”

All this serves as a reminder that while we librarians pride ourselves on drilling down to locate more complete information, those people who support and affect funding libraries often just see the headline or the first paragraph of a story and get misleading information. It’s not breaking news but it continues to be our responsibility to keep our constituency in the know. As Janice Del Negro stated in her recent 2015 Follett lecture, “When we let other people tell our story, they get it wrong almost every time.”

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