Numeracy Matters More Than Ever

I have a list on my website suggesting the skills needed to become a successful journalist. Numeracy is one of them.

In Wired, tech writer (and fellow Canadian) Clive Thompson, makes the argument again:

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?

2 thoughts on “Numeracy Matters More Than Ever

  1. john

    I’m not aware of a single reporter that bothers to dig into statistics properly save (warning it’s politics). Often what I see, especially in television journalism, are statistics being taken as fact. So argument, especially political argument, begins with the obligatory “whipping out of the pole numbers to prove my position is more popular than your position” as if popularity was the only measure of an issues importance or not.

    I don’t mean to suggest that I have an issue with the science of statistics. I most certainly do not. I find it amazing what one can do with a good sample of a dataset and the insights one can get from it, but statistics is complex and that complexity can indeed be used to tilt results one way or another, and there are precious few people who can harness the issues to show how that is done. Here then is where a print journalist has a material advantage over a talking head that is worried about ratings. You have the space to expand and criticize statistics in a meaningful way.

    For lay people, one thing that is useful is the emergence of polls of polls type information. It’s useful because it can reveal issues in sampling, which is one of the ways the statistics game is played. The best example lately is Rasmussen, who has a reputation of being right-leaning. They argue about it, but when you see their results over time there is no denying some sort of bias being injected into their data.

    Anyway, this is great topic not only for journalists but for all of us. If journalists did a better job of digging into stats and demystifying them, I think it would be a great service to the population at large, because frankly, I see a lot of people marketing the truth with what might appear to be some sort of voodoo science. And the reality is that the truth, whatever that means, is far more rich and far more complex than a simple number.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    john, thanks for a thoughtful answer. The sad fact is that many reporters are lazy, rushed and scared to not have the same story as their (equally lazy rushed) competitors. There is no excuse for lousy reporting when, as you point out, these “stats” are used as political footballs without anyone asking where the numbers are from.

    It also needs to be asked, every single time, who paid for this research and who stands to benefit, financially or politically, from these results?

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