I have a list on my website suggesting the skills needed to become a successful journalist. Numeracy is one of them.
Statistics is hard. But that’s not just an issue of individual understanding; it’s also becoming one of the nation’s biggest political problems. We live in a world where the thorniest policy issues increasingly boil down to arguments over what the data mean. If you don’t understand statistics, you don’t know what’s going on — and you can’t tell when you’re being lied to. Statistics should now be a core part of general education. You shouldn’t finish high school without understanding it reasonably well — as well, say, as you can compose an essay.
Consider the economy: Is it improving or not? That’s a statistical question. You can’t actually measure the entire economy, so analysts sample chunks of it — they take a slice here and a slice there and try to piece together a representative story. One metric that’s frequently touted is same-store sales growth, a comparison of how much each store in a big retail chain is selling compared with a year ago. It’s been trending upward, which has financial pundits excited.
Problem is, to calculate that stat, economists remove stores that have closed from their sample. As New York University statistician Kaiser Fung points out, that makes the chains look healthier than they might really be. Does this methodological issue matter? Absolutely: When politicians see economic numbers pointing upward, they’re less inclined to fund stimulus programs.
Do you think most reporters handle stats well? Who does it best? Worst?