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MATH IS HARD! In a surprising report, the Post’s ombudsman makes an astounding suggestion: // link // print // previous // next //

This just in from the godfather: The New York Times tends to defer to the foibles and whims of its billionaire mayor. (But darlings! Those marvelous parties!) That in mind, we chuckled at the start of Saturday’s news report about a concession the mayor has made concerning his choice of Cathleen Black to head the New York City schools.

Javier Hernandez penned the front-page report about the mayor’s controversial choice. Perhaps whimsically, he started with this:

HERNANDEZ (11/27/10): Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reached a deal Friday to save the tottering candidacy of Cathleen P. Black to be the next chancellor of New York City schools, agreeing to appoint a career educator who started as a classroom teacher to serve as her second in command.

As a result, the state education commissioner, David M. Steiner, has agreed to grant Ms. Black, a media executive, the exemption from the normal credentials required by state law for the position, according to a person with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

The move was a significant concession by Mr. Bloomberg, who has often resisted efforts from outside City Hall to meddle in his affairs.

Shorter Bloomberg: “This one time, I’ll let you ask me about my affairs!”

Michael Corleone said it first, just before lying to his wife. Possibly typing tongue-in-cheek, Hernandez captured a second Gotham strongman making the famous concession.

Special report: Newsroom culture!

PART 1—MATH IS HARD (permalink): Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve often noted the problems big journalists tend to have with the simplest statistical matters. Four examples:

In the fall of 1999, we did a series of posts on the problems big broadcasters seemed to be having with “margin of error.” This even included Brian Williams, who didn’t seem to know how to apply this basic concept to data from election polls.

In recent years, we’ve often been struck by major journalists’ failure to deal with the concept of “significance.” Statistical significance in not the same thing as societal significance; that is, a difference which is “statistically significant” may be significant in no other way. Journalists rarely show any sign of grasping this basic idea.

Journalists are routinely flummoxed by the concept of inflation; this leads to endlessly bollixed work about major budget matters. In the mid-1990s, this produced several years of Group Confusion concerning Republican plans for the Medicare program. This sector-wide fumbling was one of the matters which led us to start this site.

Test scores? In the past few decades, test scores have constantly been written about—often by education reporters who seem to have no idea how to interpret such basic data. Even the simplest statistical procedures seem unknown within this world. This has led to decades of bollixed reporting and “analysis.”

In several of these areas, our academics are often as much at fault as our floundering journalists. Example: Over the holidays, we plowed through Diane Ravitch’s widely-cited new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In its handling of statistical evidence, the book is stunningly woolly-headed—fuzzy, incompetent, incoherent. But so what? An array of scholars praise Ravitch’s brilliance on the book’s dust jacket.

In short, we live in a tragicomically unintelligent time—an age when two of our major intellectual elites are routinely unable to function. The simplest kinds of statistical matters seem to overwhelm major journalists—often after academic elites have been similarly bollixed. That said, even we were surprised by Andrew Alexander’s ombudsman piece in yesterday’s Washington Post. At the end of his piece, Alexander offered a set of surprising suggestions:

ALEXANDER (11/28/10): Many newsrooms provide remedial math training, but that's not been done at The Post. It should be considered. And given the increasing use 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.

What a remarkable set of suggestions! For decades, the Washington Post has sat at the very top of mainstream American journalism. But according to Alexander, the Post should consider providing “remedial math” to its stable of famous writers! We were surprised by the reasons Alexander gave for this recommendation—and by the lackadaisical way he described the culture which forces this odd suggestion.

Why do our highest-ranking journalists need remedial math? According to Alexander, “numbers errors” are an almost-daily occurrence at the Washington Post. Behind this, there lies a remarkable culture—a culture we had never heard described before Alexander’s piece:

ALEXANDER: In the digital age, with a growing amount of raw data available online from government and other sources, numerical literacy has never been more important to journalists.


But newsrooms seem phobic about numbers. That self-perception is so deep-rooted that it's often joked about among journalists.

"I think we have a culture where it's okay to say, 'I'm a journalist, which means I'm terrible at math,'" said [journalist Craig] Silverman. "And just that pervasive attitude, that you don't need to be good at math to be a journalist, contributes to a lot of mistakes."

Sarah Cohen, a former Post database editor who shared in a Pulitzer Prize, agreed. “We've found it charming when people in the newsroom say, ‘I can't do math,’ ” said Cohen, who holds a journalism chair at Duke University. "I've never understood why we think that's a good thing, but we think that spelling names wrong is bad.

Is it true? Is there a culture inside newsrooms in which journalists joke about their cluelessness with math—a shared cluelessness they find charming? Before yesterday, we had never heard such a culture described. But Alexander, a life-long journalist, seems to think this phenomenon is well-known. And he cited several journalists and academics, including Cohen, who seem to agree with his view:

ALEXANDER: Are journalists really uncommonly bad with numbers?

"We are, more or less, an industry of English majors," said Allison Martell, a Canadian freelance writer who has written extensively about math and statistical literacy among journalists. "But there's a fear of math in the population in general. So it's natural we would find this among journalists, too.”


"I think what's going on is that when journalists see a number, they take it at face value and don't question it," [journalism professor Scott] 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.

Are Cohen and Maier and the others correct? To what extent do journalists “panic” when forced to deal with numbers? To what extent are journalists “charmed” when their colleagues admit to incompetence? We don’t know, but we were struck by the way Alexander seemed to take these remarkable claims in stride.

Most striking example: Martell is quoted saying that, since there’s a fear of math in the general population, “it’s natural we would find this among journalists, too.” But what an astounding comparison! Presumably, the Washington Post has never selected its staff from a random search of the general population; in a nation of 300 million souls, the Post is supposed to represent the brightest and best—the best the news business can offer. But Alexander voices no surprise at the odd things he quotes his sources saying—or at the remarkable notion that the Post should offer “remedial math” to its world-famous staff.

Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve often described the mainstream press corps as “a D-plus elite.” We’ve often marveled at the press corps’ cluelessness with the simplest statistical measures. In Sunday’s piece, Alexander describes the culture of such an elite—and to our ear, he doesn’t seem to see the strangeness of the things he alleges.

We read this piece after a day on the train reading Ravitch’s amazingly woolly-headed book. On the dust jacket, major figures praise her brilliance—and Salon has just named her a hero in the “year of sanity” (click here). But this wider haplessness is of a piece with the D-plus culture Alexander describes.

According to Alexander, the Post should offer remedial math to its famous reporters. In turn, those scribes should stop joking around about how incompetent they are! Truly, our culture is a joke of the gods—a mere amusement, an opera bouffe, a masterwork of idiocracy and headlong disastrous decline.

Tomorrow: Protecting the guild (click here)