Don’t Believe Any Of The Numbers In A Newspaper

Those who go into journalism tend to be those who did well in English – or perhaps, these days, grievance studies – rather than any of the subjects where you actually learn something. Fair enough we might suppose, the job skill required is to be able to lay out the words that fill the spaces between the ads after all. However, this does mean that we shouldn’t pay much attention to any set of numbers we’re presented with.

It’s not – particularly – that the journalists are stupid, or ignorant, it’s that not having done a science or maths very much means that the internal controls which make us go “‘Ang on a mo'” aren’t there with respect to those numbers. Spotting a dangling participle maybe – and I confess I don’t even know what that means – but not that what’s being presented doesn’t, umm, add up.

The number of diagnoses of type 2 diabetes has fallen in an ‘encouraging’ sign, the charity Diabetes UK has said. Although three people are still being diagnosed every three minutes the equivalent of 552 cases per day, it is 27 cases fewer each day than in 2016 when there were 579 every 24 hours, nearly one person every two minutes.

That’ll be one person every three minutes then, there being some 1,500 minutes in a day.

No, that’s not accurate, but that’s the point of the whinge here. Brad Delong, an American professor over at Berkeley, has been known to run little courses for journalistic types. To just try to get some basic numbers into heads. Being an economist himself he tries to get economic numbers in but that’s fine. His point being that people can – and all too often are – entirely au fait with the difference between Grime and Dubstep, say, or Marcuse and Sartre. While not having a clue that there are about 160 million jobs in the US, the difference between 1% and 2% annual GDP growth is a doubling in the economy every 70 or every 35 years, population’s about 320 million and so on. Just the general and basic numbers needed to make instinctive sense of a story about people and the economy.

What’s missing that is is a basic numerical literacy or perhaps knowledge base.

So, don’t believe the numbers you see in the newspapers. The words, maybe, but the numbers, no.

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Climan
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Climan

Science and techie geeks eventually get good enough at English to be journalists, mostly, but how many arty-farties eventually get good enough at numbers? None?

Even when the numbers come out right there is almost always the problem of subsets, as in only numbers in the favourable subset get mentioned, those in the other (agenda-unfriendly) subset don’t get a mention.

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

And there also seems to be some incomprehensible reluctance to display numbers as a table instead of an incomprehensible string of sentences. Which is easier to understand?
Green 56
Blue 28
Yellow 14
Red 10
or:
Green received 56, whereas Blue polled 28, Yellow gaining 14, and Red 10.