Harvard Publishes Meaningless Report; Media Calls It News

A three-person team from the Harvard School of Public Health found nothing, issued a report to the British Medical Journal, and has seen headlines on televised, radio and print news touting the uselessness of airport security measures.

The report was actually an out-of-discipline study (find the report here) which measured airport security screening as though it were disease screening, under the same standards used by the UK National Screening Committee “to assess screening technologies on the basis of sound scientific evidence and advise on whether they should be implemented, continued, or withdrawn.”

In other words, if terrorism were a disease, airports bodies and security checkpoints doctors, would the screening measures used to detect and prevent the infliction and spread of air-based terror?  An interesting study, and probably one worth pursuing. 

So, what’s the problem?  Put simply, there was no data.  Or, rather, there was no conclusive data.  The report cites security costs, versus the 38-year death toll from explosives on planes at “only 2000.”  As a health situation, says the report, the known-incidents-versus-cost analysis would suggest that too much money is being spent on prevention.  The study, written by a health studies group, and not by foreign policy or national security experts, does not consider mounting tensions and escalating threats.  Nor, at least in the article cited, does it appear to consider non-device threats, such as crashing a hijacked plane into a building.

However, lacking — or apparantly lacking — this data is not the major problem with this study.  The major problem is that the research was based mostly on reviewing literature on the airport security screening process.  They found no scientific data among the literature reviewed that studied the effectiveness of various screening processes.

The group itself also did no such study.

It was based, not upon data, but upon a lack of data, that the group made its findings and conclusions.

Now, based on the criteria the group was using for its study, in the context in which they were studying it, their conclusions seem fair enough.  If the UK National Screening Committee was faced with a similar lack of data regarding health screenings, it’s likely it would make the same conclusions.

However, as a matter of national security, for the reasons I stated above, what we really have here is a conclusion of no conclusion.  For the media to take this inconclusive study and widely publish the conclusion that there’s “No proof airport security makes flying safer” is irresponsible, unethical and, frankly, lazy journalism.  The fact is, they were handed a story, it had an angle they liked, and they ran it.

I don’t really fault the Harvard group — though I disagree with their methodology and don’t believe they could reasonably come to any conclusion based on the data at hand (which was, as I’ve mentioned, none at all).  The real blame for passing off this tripe lies squarely on the shoulders of the news media.  It also lies on those who swallowed it, rather than asking the important questions that should be asked whenever some study by some group concludes anything

In no media report was there mention of methodology.  Nowhere in these news reports do we learn about the criteria on which this group is basing their study.  We don’t find out the metrics on which they’re judging “usefulness” of the screening process.  We don’t find out how, why and from whom the group is collecting data.  We don’t find out what data they’re collecting.

To their credit, the mainstream media did, at least, cite the orginal source — the British Medical Journal.  The information I was able to, finally, find about this study was found there.  Those news sources to be found online didn’t even use the one tool at its disposal to make such research simple: the hyperlink.  I googled it instead.  A link to this peice in the BMJ would have been very simple to do.  That they chose not to do it (when, in many cases, they had no problem providing a link to Transportation Security Administration website) makes me believe they didn’t want the average person to learn more about this study.  They wanted to create a false reading of a fairly pointless study and give it credibility merely by saying, “Harvard said so.”

And the study is pretty pointless, by the way.  An inconclusive study is, to be frank, not of much use.  And if usefulness is a measure of value, as it should be, this study truly is worthless.  What’s shocking is, as I traveled the web looking into this story, I found that so many commenters really did swallow this story hook, line and sinker.  Without further inquiry.  This is why critical thinking is important, ladies and gentlemen.

By the way, just to note, this particular peice has only to do with the study and the media response to it.  I am not drawing, nor asking you to draw, any conclusions about the usefulness of airport security measures.  I, also, don’t have the data to do so — and unlike the mainstream media, am too responsible for the things I say to suggest otherwise.

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