Alex Blaze

Math really is hard

Filed By Alex Blaze | November 30, 2010 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Media

It's interesting to see this from the Washington Post ombudsman considering I criticized two math-is-hard.jpgPost writers in the past few months for their inability to question the value of statistics in even the most basic ways (like reading the warnings in the press release about the limited value of the numbers):

Many newsrooms provide remedial math training, but that's not been done at The Post. It should be considered. And given the increasing usage of numbers in reporting and graphics, The Post should pay heightened attention to math and statistical literacy when evaluating prospective hires.

But above all, Post journalists should focus on the basics. Scrutinize every number. Double-check every percentage. Question every statistic. That's as basic as one, two, three.

I don't read the Post regularly, and the ombudsman spends a lot of time talking about basic arithmetic errors, which he says are a problem at the Post. I'll take his word for it.

But the way they fumble with statistics, well, it's not just arithmetic, it's a basic misunderstanding of what numbers can tell and an assumption that a press release that blares "X percent of people do Y" is an absolute, universal truth instead. And it doesn't take an advanced degree in mathematics or even a calculator to know that when comparing polling from a House race to a Presidential race in two different years one can't say it proves changing attitudes over time. And someone said just that:

"I think what's going on is that when journalists see a number, they take it at face value and don't question it," Maier said. "With numbers, I think journalists tend to abdicate that scrutiny."

Martell agreed, explaining that those intimidated by math tend to "panic" when forced to deal with numbers.

"You don't really have to know that much about statistics to read a statistical paper critically," she said, adding that reporters often cite numbers and statistics touted in news releases without questioning their accuracy.

Well, at least they've admitted they have a problem there at the Post. It's the first step to getting better.

But the lack of attention to detail when it comes to statistics and the constant bungling/manipulation of numbers, not just at the Post but in other media outlets, is really just the sign of a deeper problem, how journalists often don't know how to question facts or the way they're being interpreted by politicians and people with power.

And when gay bloggers without backgrounds in math can catch their errors it's just sort of sad.

h/t Bob Somberby

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Sooner or later we have to face the reality of "math" because it doesn't lie - if it is understood.

I agree that most journalists ignore math or they make claims based on "national polls" when they are irrelevant, like in the US Congress.

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones tackled why we should be wary of statistics yesterday with some very good points as to what a reader should be on the lookout for: The comments are also very enlightening as to some of the most common errors to look out for.

Math doesn't lie, but statistics is one of 3 major lies, 1) lies, 2) Damn lies, 3) Statistics

This is a saying I truly hate. Statistics is not a lie. EVER. The problem is that people will use pseudostatistics (the kind of thing that Alex is talking about) in order to lie and it has the veneer of accuracy. But, because so many people don't know shit about mathematics and are scared of numbers conmen can get away with lying with false math.

Can you imagine if we took the time to doublecheck all of the contributor's math too? Wow. Talk about editing control.

Of course, the newspaper actually pays people to do that sort of thing. If we were making money...

I think it's a little different for reasons you point out. We are not the wapo. We won't ever be. We don't pretend to be. We don't think that we're always accurate, impartial, and fair and then run around screaming about statistics that don't say what we say they say.

Statistics is not a lie. EVER.

Yea, Right! If you remove the data that is an obvious outlier and then get the Minimum, Mean, Mode & Maximum, You get data! But what if the data on bed bugs was derived from the data on fleas?

Any Statistical reports that can be made from data, can form incorrect results! It is called Spin!

In that situation you are using the incorrect tool, therefore, lying. When a contractor tries to screw in a nail do you blame the worker or the screwdriver?