Fear sells better than reality

February 11, 2008

It’s really quite alarming sometimes just how misleadingly scientific findings can be reported. Take for example this article on a study by the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, that allegedly “challenges the notion that ethnic diversity leads to a stronger, more cohesive society”.


Let’s have a closer look. First the title of the article:

Ethnic diversity drains altruism

Yikes. Altruism is a good thing, and if it drains it, ethnic diversity must be a bad thing! Pray tell me more sir:

MIGRANTS from non-English-speaking countries are less likely to be volunteers than Australian-born people or migrants from English-speaking nations, a study shows.

Ethnically diverse neighbourhoods have lower levels of volunteering even among their Australian-born residents.

Um, okay. But what does volunteering have to do with altruism?

Using levels of volunteering as an indicator of social cohesion, the study shows that suburbs with a high degree of ethnic diversity have markedly lower rates of volunteering than more homogenous localities.

Ah, so the whole study is based on the premise that volunteering is a good indicator of social cohesion. (I suspect that a good argument could be made to the contrary, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make just now.) So what does social cohesion have to do with altruism?

The author if the study is quoted as saying :

Dr Healy said it would be wrong to conclude migrants from non-English-speaking countries were unfriendly and uncaring and less altruistic than Australian-born people. It was likely their altruism was directed to friends, families and neighbours, not through organised civic, sporting, and welfare organisations. However, altruism directed through formal groups represented a “commitment to the broader social good”.

So the body of the article states that “Dr Healy said it would be wrong to conclude migrants from non-English-speaking countries were unfriendly and uncaring and less altruistic than Australian-born people” and that their “altruism” is directed toward their own cultural group rather than into organised community wide groups. And yet it is titled “Ethnic diversity drains altruism”.

So, I have to ask, is there actually any obligation on the paper for the title of the article to accurately reflect the findings of the study being reported on? Or even just the actual the content of the article it is supposed to be describing?

But then I suppose that “Study suggests that cultural factors occurring in geographically determined areas of ethnic diversity appear to correlate with lower levels of social cohesion as indicated by rates of organized volunteering” doesn’t really have quite the same punch value.

*Yes, yes, I realize that the article states “.. in ethnically diverse areas, both the Australian-born residents and the migrants from non-English speaking countries were less likely to volunteer than their counterparts in the more homogenous neighbourhoods”, but as stated earlier that says absolutely nothing about altruism, just rates of organized volunteering.

2 Responses to “Fear sells better than reality”

  1. Mark Lenahn Says:

    Is this a case of confusing correlation with causality?

    Imagine the following scenario:
    Ethnically diverse neighbourhoods (especially if recent migration) have lower average income per household. If a household has more income from fewer members at work it will generate more volunteers.

    I’m not saying that is the case, I’m just quoting it as one example of a possible third factor which may correlate to both volunteerism and ethnic diversity.

    My point is there are maybe many explanations for the correlation observed. I think the statement “Ethnic diversity drains altruism” is shocking and dishonest.

  2. If you ever want to hear a reader’s feedback 🙂 , I rate this article for four from five. Detailed info, but I just have to go to that damn msn to find the missed pieces. Thank you, anyway!

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