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How data gets misused in the media

Reporters love scary things. It allows them to breathlessly warn about the latest danger or epidemic. This leads them to fail to actually, you know, report.

Here’s an example.

I ran across an article by Rachel Hillier Pratt, the Albuquerque Health News Examiner: One out of four college students use stimulants to get by.

(Now pretty much anybody can be an Examiner — even John English — regardless of their qualifications or sanity, but still this serves as an example of what happens out there.)

So Rachel Pratt says:

Currently one in four college students have used Adderall…

Interesting. But a little bell with the letters “B.S.” written on it was ringing furiously in the back of my head. I know a lot more than four college students, and while I have no illusions that my college friends are all drug-free, Adderall doesn’t seem to be high on the list of preferred substances. Sure, even back in my day of college, there was the occasional little blue speed capsules that made their way around at exam time so I know about the tendency for college students to consider artificial wakefulness assistance, but while I wouldn’t doubt a number of college students use Adderall, the one in four bothered me.

So I clicked on her link to Drug News where I read:

As many as one-in-four college students misused ADHD medications according to a nationwide survey reported in the journal, Addiction.

OK, we already see a divergence from one article to the other. Drug News said ADHD medications, Rachel limited it to Adderall. And then there’s… “As many as…” Not “one in four,” but “as many as one-in-four.” What does that mean?

It reminds me of those TV commercials promoting “as much as 25% off” during their store-wide sale!!! Does that mean everything is 25% off? Of course not.

So I went to the journal Addiction and found the study’s abstract, where I learned about their study of college students in 119 colleges in 2001:

The life-time prevalence of non-medical prescription stimulant use was 6.9%, past year prevalence was 4.1% and past month prevalence was 2.1%. Past year rates of non-medical use ranged from zero to 25% at individual colleges.

So the one in four of self-reported use was at the highest range of colleges (perhaps one college). At the other end was zero. So Drug News could just as easily have said “As few as zero college students misused ADHD medications…” and perhaps then Rachel would have had an article proclaiming that “No college students use stimulants to get by” (it would be as accurate as her article).

This took me less than two minutes with teh Google, and I’m not a science writer like Rachel Pratt.

So what’s the actual story? Among college students self-reporting in 2001, just over 4 percent had used Ritalin, Dexedrine or Adderall non-medically in the past year.

Not as scary and exciting, but true, and a better starting point for, you know, reporting.

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14 comments to How data gets misused in the media

  • James

    I have stopped watching the “news” for exactly this reason. Think coverages of the “wars”. There was a recent special I believed it was called Marijuana Inc. Where the lead reporter stated that ganja is legal in Amsterdam. All I could think of is WTF. If it’s being reported in the main stream press you can be pretty sure that there is a flaw in the reporting somewhere. I actually thought 1984 was just a scary book.

  • James

    The news press really is the Ministry of Truth

  • paul

    There are Lies, there are Damn Lies, and then there are Statistics.

  • I can understand the theory of opposing drug use because it makes you do inferior work, lazy, etc. But you can’t have it both ways. Adderall makes you perform much better on tests, allows you to read faster, recall more, focus much better.

    I don’t get the whole opposition to “performance enhancing” drugs. If taking steroids is cheating, then so is working out, drinking protein shakes, and taking vitamins. Exercising 6 hours a day isn’t cheating, but taking a pill is? Well, some pills. A vitamin B pill is not cheating, an adderall pill is.

    Why should we not take drugs if it will make us perform better?

    Even if it is 1 in 4 (which I call bullshit on as well), so damn what? That just means 75% of students aren’t meeting their full potential. Sucks to be them.

  • ezrydn

    Next time you run across an interesting story on either CNN or FoxNews, go chech the other network. Nine times out of ten, you’ll find the exact same story, word for word, misspellings and all. This is the level of today’s “reporting.” “Copy and paste” or, as we used to say in the industry, “rip and read.”

  • Mike R

    An excellent read on the subject of fear in media.

    Absolutely hilarious, mostly because it’s spot-on.

  • AP

    Just wanted to chime in. I go to the University of Washington. Of the frat guys I know, use of stimulants to study is fairly widespread. They alternate from drinking all the time to staying up on adderall/ritalin/etc to catch up on all the work they didn’t do. At least with the people I know, it’s not just exam time, but every week.

  • AP, that fits with the study’s findings, which were that stimulants are particularly prevalent in “college students who were male, white, members of fraternities and sororities.”

  • You are right. Thanks for reading. I did not represent the statistic accurately and will change it on my post. Still, the use of Adderall and other cocaine-like substances (watch the hilarious you tube production on my website) are on the rise in college campuses. The New Yorker wrote an extensive piece on this issue http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/31/education/edlife/jacobs31.html.

    Enjoy. The New Yorker reports, “up to 20 percent.”

    My article (thanks for the link) shows how students use drugs to get by. (i.e. party and socialize rather than read books and attend class). The intention of the article was to show how drug use will not necessarily bring better grades. Drugs like Adderall (et al) don’t make you smarter or give you better grades. Instead, they keep you awake and make you think you’re smart while you’re actually acting like a total moron–While you’re talking, and talking, and talking, and talking like a moron.

    I’m not “anti-drugs.” I just think people who take stimulants cheat–and come off sounding like total morons at the same time.

    Stupid people (who didn’t read the book) trying to sound smart, don’t sound smarter when they take drugs.

    How’s that?

    Love and kisses,

    Rachel

  • Rachel – thanks so much for stopping by and for being willing to revisit the facts in your post. It means a lot.

    If more people in the press responded as you did, we’d have a much more informed national conversation.

    Thanks again.

  • […] Thread Kudos to Rachel Hillier Pratt for responding so pleasantly to our post about her article, and for having the integrity to agree […]

  • Brandon W.

    Rachel, I’m sorry, but if taking stimulants works for those students, and they end up successful(in school), you can’t fault them, no matter how concerned you are for their “harmful” choice to use.

    As a student I know alot of students that use adderall to study. they don’t have any social problems, and haven’t ruined their lives. Just because you feel that you, or your children, don’t need it or like it, doesn’t mean others don’t.

  • DdC

    Hi Rachel,

    Speed has always been a staple of the corporate system. From the Military go go pills to the truckers white crosses. Cops on stake outs and Interns doing 36 hour shifts, nurses and now kids for ADHD. The fashion industry and diet industry and those college kids of all ranks cramming for exams, and Rachel it has ben used since the 40’s. Hitlers rants look a lot like Rush Limbaugh rants, maybe countering the oxycontin. Uppers temporarily allow users to retain enough stats and facts to pass an exam. Communication garble is trying to annunciate more thoughts than physically possible. I listened to the “Hippies” when they said “Speed Kills”, and sure enough it did. Without Ganja to round of the razor edge, to the brink reactions, “the red zone”, many have snapped into violence and rage. Its never safe for the short and long term damage it does to the organs, bones and teeth. Note it has reality based in the laws of physics victims, unlike the propaganda about Ganja.

    Hard times from trickle up Reagan voodoo economics until now, causes more blue collar workers to seek stimulants to handle the overtime or second job required to pay the bills. Then a counter “pill” happily sold to crash enough to then get up and do it again. Bad combo doing physical labor and racing your heart 3 times normal without replenishing vital water and nutrition from the lack of appetite. As a hospice home health aid I know Ganja extractions help seniors get a restful sleep and dissipates the horrible bloody nightmares caused by certain Pharmaceuticals. Or “the zombies” and slurred speech hangovers. Leaves and Hemp Oil polstices are great for skin break downs, stopping edema “leaks”, that hinder healing. Antibiotec and anteceptic properties of the Endocannabinoids I assume. Happy to see Science is starting to catch up.

    Stimulates appetites for speed freaks too. One cure for the blue collars may be paying a living wage and health and retirement bennies like the good ole days. Some zealots feel its better if they’re dead than drugged. I think education and remembering they are Americans, and that many are Vets, living on the streets trying to forget. Ganja for PTSD works. All Pharmaceuticals have side effects that usually require more Pharmaceuticals.

    Who’d a ever thunk the seeds, short term memory loss, munchies and cotton mouth would be of service to society someday? Speed Kills, Slowly… and I think the only thing less accurate than drug survey’s, are drug survey’s taken by straight people in suits. Especially on the street level, or by employers, parents or teachers. Also geography and political climate play a role in accuracy.
    Be well,