Monday, October 21, 2013

Radiolab's junk reporting: my investigation requests to the National Science Foundation & WNYC -- and some surprising statistics about choking deaths [UPDATED]

Jad Abumrad & Robert Krulwich, Radiolab co-hosts and co-investigators on the $1.5m NSF grant (source)
In his May 1st CityBeat column, veteran reporter/journalism professor/media critic Ben Kaufman addressed some serious reportorial problems in an audio  documentary about my father produced by Radiolab, a widely-syndicated NPR show that's based at WNYC.

As documented in an investigation request letter I sent today to the National Science Foundation, those problems were just the tip of the iceberg.

NSF Award #1114623, Radiolab: What Curiosity Sounds Like; Discovering, Challenging, And Sharing Scientific Ideas

From my letter, addressed to Richard Duschl PhD, director of the NSF division that oversees the grant:
I'm troubled that this program is supported by tax dollars. Based on the following information, Radiolab's brand of journalism includes: failing to correct provably false information; reporting information known to be false; reporting fabricated information; cutting unethical deals to obtain interviews; obtaining interviews and information under false pretenses; and censorship.

Astoundingly, all that malfeasance occurred in the reporting of a single story, The Man Behind the Maneuver, a 25-minute documentary about my father, Henry J. Heimlich MD, known for "the Heimlich maneuver."

...(This) is to request that the NSF conduct a thorough review of Radiolab's editorial policies and NSF's oversight of the grant, and that further funding be frozen until the review is completed.
For details, click here to download a copy or page down to view my letter, an eight-page shopping list of the story's junk reporting.

[10/28/13 UPDATE: This morning I sent a near-identical investigation request to Dean Cappello, Chief Content Officer and Senior Vice President of Programming at WNYC Radio, the NPR flagship station that produces Radiolab. Click here to view, click here to download.]

Even if you don't want to go into those weeds, check out this go-round I had with Pat Walters, who reported and produced the story because it leads to information that may surprise you: 
(During a two-hour interview he conducted with me last December, Mr. Walters) asked me whether I thought that “the good my father had accomplished outweighed the bad.” I asked him to clarify – that is, what “good” and “bad” was he referring to? He replied that regardless of the harm for which my father may be responsible, “the Heimlich maneuver has saved the lives of many thousands of choking victims.”

I then asked him for the source of that number. He replied that it came from choking death statistics published by the National Safety Council. (I'm familiar with those statistics, so I realized he didn't know what he was talking about.) I replied that I'd answer his question after he reviewed those figures and got back to me.

About a week later, I received this in a December 27, 2012 e-mail from Mr. Walters:

I checked my NSC stats, and it looks like I was wrong. I’d had an intern run the numbers for me initially, with the intention of checking them later, which I always do. Here’s what I’ve found: I only have data up to 2009 (from the 2011 report), which I believe you said you have, too. I’m waiting on the 2012 report from the com people at NSC so I can avoid paying 90 bucks for it. But anyway, according to that data and my back of the envelope calculations using population estimates from the US Census, in 1973 (pre-Heimlich manuever [sic]), choking was listed as the cause for 1.42 deaths per 100,000 people in the US. In 2009? The rate was 1.49 per 100,000.
So, if anything, the rate has gone up a bit. But just a bit. Not even significant, if you ask me. My take on this is that, essentially, almost nothing has changed.
...But here's what Mr. Walters reported:
(Thousands) and thousands – maybe even millions – have been rescued by the Heimlich maneuver.
In an e-mail to Mr. Walters shortly after his story aired, I asked how he arrived at the “thousands and thousands – maybe even millions” figure? From his March 8 reply:
The maneuver has been around for 38 years. If 52 people have been saved by it in each year of its existence, it has saved “thousands” of lives over the course of its existence.
In other words, he ignored his own conclusion about the NSC data, and chose to make up and report his own.

My highlighting (source)

Squiffy reporting aside, take another look at what he wrote:
(Since the introduction of the Heimlich maneuver in 1974) the rate (of choking deaths) has gone up a bit. But just a bit. Not even significant, if you ask me. My take on this is that, essentially, almost nothing has changed.
Click here for the NSC's 2011 edition of Injury Facts. Choking deaths per capita, collected from 1943-2009, are on pages 55-56.

I have no expertise in statistics, but that's how the numbers look to me, too. 

But according to Cincinnati's Heimlich Institute:
Since its introduction, the Heimlich Maneuver has saved over 50,000 people in the United States alone.
Any statistics experts want to chime in?

This item has been slightly revised.