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January 25, 2005

Numbers Guys

This past Sunday Daniel Okrent, the new "Public Editor" of the New York Times, pondered the shortcomings of reporting on numbers, both in his newspaper and by journalists generally:

When it comes to how it handles numbers, The Times is an equal opportunity offender. Like a bad cough that spreads its germs indiscriminately, numbers misapplied and ill-explained irritate the sensibilities of the right and the left, the drug company official and the animal rights activist, the art collector and the Jets fan?...

Number fumbling arises, I believe, not from mendacity but from laziness, carelessness or lack of comprehension. I'll put myself in the latter category (as some readers no doubt will as well, after they've read through my representation of the numbers that follow). Most of the journalists I know who enter the profession comfortable with numbers write about sports, where debate about the meaning of statistics is a daily competition, or economics, a field in which interpretation of numbers will no more likely produce inarguable results than will finger painting. So it is left to the rest of us who write for the paper to stumble through numbers, scatter them on the page and hope that readers understand.

After reviewing a half dozen or so examples (which MP was, of course, too lazy to count), Okrent makes a suggestion:

Although everyone who writes for The Times is presumably comfortable with words, every sentence nonetheless goes through the hands of copy editors, highly trained specialists who can bring life to a dead paragraph or clarity to a tortured clause with a tap-tap here and a delete-insert there. But numbers, so alien to so many, don't get nearly this respect. The paper requires no specific training to enhance numeracy, and no specialists whose sole job is to foster it. David Leonhardt and Charles Blow, the deputy design director for news, have just begun to conduct occasional seminars on "Using and Misusing Numbers" and that's a start. But as I read the paper and try to dodge the context-absent numbers that are thrown about like shot-puts, I long for more.

MP applauds any effort to enhance numeracy. Toward that end, he recommends "The Numbers Guy," a new free online column (no subscription required) from WSJ.com that seems exactly what Dr. Okrent ordered.  It promises to "examine numbers and statistics in the news, business, politics and health" especially those that are "flat-out wrong, misleading or biased." The author is Carl Bialik, a freelance writer with a math degree who (true to Okrent's observation) was once a sportswriter.  Looks interesting and a definite addition to MP's regular reading list.

UPDATE:  The URL link I orginally included for The Numbers Guy was incorrect and may have taken you to a WSJ subscription page.  That was my error.  I've corrected the URL (it's www.wsj.com/numbersguy) -- it should work and be free to all comers.   Apologies. 

Related Entries - Polls in the News

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on January 25, 2005 at 04:18 PM in Polls in the News | Permalink

Comments


I've spent a good deal of time learning to understand baseball stats. The NY Times did such a bad job of using baseball stats that-- long before Jayson Blair made the paper a laughingstock-- I stopped taking the Times seriously. YMMV.

Posted by: James Withrow | Jan 25, 2005 5:46:28 PM

Your post says that "The Numbers Guy" does not require registration at WSJ.com, but your link takes the reader to the subscription page for the WSJ and states that the service is for subscribers only. Oh, well, it sounded too good to be true, and it turns out it was.

Posted by: Richard | Jan 26, 2005 12:16:34 PM

Richard: The bad URL was my doing. The new one should work as per the update above.

Everyone: Please post a comment if you have furhter trouble.

Posted by: Mark Blumenthal | Jan 26, 2005 1:02:20 PM

Mark,
This is exactly why some journalism schools are now offering statistics. Few, if memory serves, require it.

This site is also designed to help journalists
http://www.Stats.org

The "Chance" project is a site designed to assist statistics education for undergraduates. However, the "Chance Newsletter" is a resource that enterprising journalists may subscribe to via email. It lists uses (and misuses) of statistical information in the mass media:
http://www.dartmouth.edu/~chance/chance_news/news.html

Posted by: Paul Gronke | Jan 26, 2005 1:24:18 PM

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