MATH IS HARD! In a surprising report, the Posts ombudsman makes an astounding suggestion: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 2010
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 Saturdays 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 mayors controversial choice. Perhaps whimsically, he started with this:
Shorter Bloomberg: This one time, Ill 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.
PART 1MATH IS HARD (permalink): Here at THE HOWLER, weve 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 didnt seem to know how to apply this basic concept to data from election polls.
In recent years, weve 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 aboutoften 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 Ravitchs 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-headedfuzzy, incompetent, incoherent. But so what? An array of scholars praise Ravitchs brilliance on the books dust jacket.
In short, we live in a tragicomically unintelligent timean age when two of our major intellectual elites are routinely unable to function. The simplest kinds of statistical matters seem to overwhelm major journalistsoften after academic elites have been similarly bollixed. That said, even we were surprised by Andrew Alexanders ombudsman piece in yesterdays Washington Post. At the end of his piece, Alexander offered a set of surprising suggestions:
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 recommendationand 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 culturea culture we had never heard described before Alexanders piece:
Is it true? Is there a culture inside newsrooms in which journalists joke about their cluelessness with matha 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:
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 dont 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 theres a fear of math in the general population, its 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 bestthe best the news business can offer. But Alexander voices no surprise at the odd things he quotes his sources sayingor at the remarkable notion that the Post should offer remedial math to its world-famous staff.
Here at THE HOWLER, weve often described the mainstream press corps as a D-plus elite. Weve often marveled at the press corps cluelessness with the simplest statistical measures. In Sundays piece, Alexander describes the culture of such an eliteand to our ear, he doesnt seem to see the strangeness of the things he alleges.
We read this piece after a day on the train reading Ravitchs amazingly woolly-headed book. On the dust jacket, major figures praise her brillianceand 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 godsa mere amusement, an opera bouffe, a masterwork of idiocracy and headlong disastrous decline.
Tomorrow: Protecting the guild (click here)