By Michael Mupotaringa
The headline is misleading and false, the actual study that informs it is academically dubious, and the entire reasoning behind it is just baffling.
This morning, public owned but the state operated daily, The Herald carried a somewhat shocking news report that sent social media into a frenzy. The headline of the story read, “47pc of UZ Students HIV+”.
In no unclear terms, the article based on a recent research stated and concluded that 47 percent of all students at the University of Zimbabwe are HIV+.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The headline is misleading and false, the actual study that informs it is academically dubious, and the entire reasoning behind it is just baffling. For lack of a better word.
Conman Headline and The Fong Kong Nokia E65
A few years ago my friend went to Ximex Mall to buy a cellphone from the informal traders who sold cheap second hand handsets. He was shown a Nokia E65 which at the time was worth about $120 USD. On the Ximex black market it went for half that price.
At the time buying cellphones from the dealers was illegal and would often earn you an arrest. The purchase would need to be done quickly and in extreme disguise. He was shown the phone, he tested it, and handed it back to the dealer so that he would remove his sim card.
Thereafter when it came to the actual exchange of money for the device, a swift change of hands would need to be done, before both the dealer and buyer parted ways in opposite directions.
Sadly, when my friend was handed over the cellphone, it was cleverly switched with an empty cover full of mud. Something he would only discover after walking several blocks from Ximex mall.
Reading the Herald headline, and then proceeding to read the actual report was much like the Ximex experience.
The headline is quite parallel to the contents of the article which go on to state that ’47 percent of UZ students who volunteered to have themselves tested achieved a positive result’
To borrow the actual words, the report states that “Nearly half of the University of Zimbabwe Students who recently underwent voluntary HIV testing were positive.”
In other words, the results achieved by the research are drawn from an unknown fraction of UZ students who volunteered to get tested.
A stark difference to brazenly stating that 47 percent of all students at an institution tested positive – implying that all students were tested?
Faulty Research Methodology
Despite the obvious con in the headline, what is even more worrying is the bankruptcy of both the parallel premises.
Whether one dismisses the headline and accepts the story, or they accept the story and dismiss the headline, it is logically impossible to escape the lameness of both the report and the headline, even if accepted as divergent.
In the report, we are not even given the sample size at all. Either by ignorance of the editorial, or by intent.
Without knowing the size of the sample, we cannot even interpret the findings in a logical manner, let alone draw any conclusions from it.
Here is why. Say for arguments sake if 100 students volunteered to get tested, and 47 tested positive for HIV, it would endorse the findings, except that it would generalise the findings for 47 out of 100 in a school whose total enrolment is probably more than 13,500 students.
While headline generalises that if 47 out of 100 tested HIV, it implies that 6345 people out of 13,500+ are also HIV+, such a proportion does not make sense.
Bar the proportional anomaly, the entire premise which informed the research is extremely dubious to say the very least.
For a study to be credible it must adhere to the academic method. For its results to be accepted to the point of even a mild suggestion of being indicative of current trends it must satisfy research methodologies.
Quite simply, if you want to study a large sample or group – which would be impossible for various reasons – you would pick a smaller sample which at least represents the entirety of the group. This is done through accepted sampling methods, which include random sampling, systematic sampling and stratified sampling.”
The mere fact that the survey, if we may call it that was done on a voluntary basis means it is devoid of sampling, hence it is neither scientific nor academic. In other words, it is literally useless.
Such kind of research is useless even as beerhall talk. So is the headline.
Sensationalism and click baiting?
I can never know for sure if the scribes were ignorant of mathematical proportions and reasoning, or were informed by other sinister motives.
I have no intention to question the integrity of the reporter, but it is blatant fact that the misleading statement which reads “47pc of UZ Students HIV+” is more attractive, catchy and bound to spin copies, whereas a parallel headline which reads “47pc of Tested UZ Students Achieve HIV Positive Result” is rather flat and easy to dismiss.
Reckless Falsehoods and Stereotyping
By now a few readers would have been wondering why I would devote so much time to a nonsense report based on a nonsense survey.
Well, it is because of the kind of damage such lies can perpetuate, and the kind of harmful sexist stereotypes it will encourage.
Given that Herald is meant to be a reputable publication, many people would have read the headline and concluded that 47 % of all UZ Students are not only HIV positive but extremely promiscuous. Not only that, most people quite quickly assumed that the 47% who are reportedly HIV positive are females.
You only need to read through the comments on social media to see the extent of the stereotypes.
For a country that is battling to achieve gender equity in tertiary education, perpetuating stereotypes like this by feeding people with lies discourages our young women from aiming to enrol in universities.
The good editorial of The Herald may have noted this and taken the post down, but the damage is done.
- Michael Mcpotar Mupotaringa is a rising Infopreneur, and owner of http://www.mcpotar.com