Texas woman has two sets of identical twins at once; CNN covers

I started watching CNN while I was having breakfast today, because there wasn't anything good saved on my DVR and I didn't want to watch Kitchen Nightmares.  I don't see much non-fictional-script based TV apart from Fox, which is what my parents watch, so I didn't realize how disappointing the institutions Fox imitates are.

The story

It was actually a pretty cool story, so I want to start with that.  A woman in Texas had a set of fraternal twins who both divided into identical twins, resulting in four children.  They named the kids alphabetically by birth order, Ace, Blaine, Cash and Dylan, and thematically after Las Vegas, in keeping with their two year old son, Memphis.

The birth-order naming scheme sounds to me like a recipe for insecurity and conflict, but I can't reasoonably claim to be sure about that.

About CNN's coverage of the story

My major criticism of this story comes from this section, similarly expressed in the video clip:

Identical twins result when a fertilized egg splits into two embryos. Twins occur in about 2% of all pregnancies, according to the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Of those, 30% are identical twins.

The odds of having two sets of twins at once is about 1 in 70 million, Dr. Alan Penzias, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News. Attempts by CNN to reach Penzias on Tuesday were not immediately successful.

I think there might be some sort of selection bias in the kinds of doctors who talk to the press.

Obviously, 1 in 70 million is a number that guy pulled out of his ass, unless ABC just did some back-of-an-envelope math based on the true things he said.  If we take the numbers he listed, and assume that the events: having fraternal twins, one twin splitting, and the other twin splitting, are all entirely separate events, with no related causes at all, then you do get odds close to 1 in 70 million.

If, for one obvious example, the event that caused one zygote to split was the same event that caused the other zygote to split, the odds are closer to 1 in 10 thousand.

Here are those numbers next to each other, in monospace, so you can see how big a difference there is:


The actual odds, insofar as they could possibly be established, is probably somewhere between those two.  Those odds are also kind of a pointless thing to report on, but if they must, they could at least aim for a more critical approach to statistics.

That story was followed up with a blatantly prejudicial teaser titled "Michael Jackson's Son Gets a Job," then a commercial by a mother who said her kids hated her before she got her teeth whitened.

About CNN

News organizations set the standard for the quality of discussion in the community they serve.  That's why it pisses me off that CNN is failing this badly.  It shouldn't be easy to spot obviously misleading or false information in any given story I'm not an expert in, but it is.  I was writing more than I was paying attention in the next few stories, but it was clear I didn't just get lucky -- CNN clearly sets a very low standard, to the point that I think they're actually stigmatizing critical thought and complex evaluation.

I hear the argument that TV-based informational content is inherently reductionistic and trivializing, but there are hundreds of examples to the contrary -- examples where creators make it clear when they're simplifying,  examples where they clearly, fully explain the relevant context, examples where humor is used sensibly in relation to the content, so it doesn't obscure the points.  Those examples are all from the last week, and they're all from YouTube channels that get these poitns right consistently.

Granted, those are all on YouTube.  But I don't think you can seriously argue that there's anything inherent about network news that makes it impossible to do what people on YouTube do, some of them in their free time.  What you can argue is that there are economic forces preventing them from moving on past their decade or two of mistakes.

I think the appropriate response to that is for good journalists to abandon the industry.  Maybe we can talk Google into offering more grants for professional journalism on YouTube?