Comments on: Pedantry and numeracy in journalism http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/10/31/pedantry-and-numeracy-in-journalism/ A slice of lime in the soda Sun, 26 Oct 2014 19:05:02 +0000 hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.5 By: Windchasers http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/10/31/pedantry-and-numeracy-in-journalism/comment-page-1/#comment-48572 Thu, 07 Nov 2013 17:28:44 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/?p=22683#comment-48572 “Let’s say that you saw various news reports about an event, and that different words were used to describe the weather: some said it was “cold”, others “brisk”, others “frosty”, others “wintry”, and so on. You wouldn’t raise an eyebrow: you’d see that they were all describing the same thing, in slightly different language, and you wouldn’t demand an explanation for the “discrepancy”. Well, numbers in news articles behave like words: they’re trying to describe the state of the world.”

THIS.

As a scientist, I see the same thing in science journalism. Science is actually mixed here: sometimes that third decimal place is very important, and other times it doesn’t matter at all. The key is knowing which is which; when the important details are qualitative and when they’re quantitative.

So what I see in popular arguments over (particular controversial science subjects), I see a lot of people being pedantic over some number that doesn’t matter that much, or *not* being pedantic over a one that does. The truth is, the layperson can’t know the difference, because they don’t have the depth of knowledge in the subject or the experience with science to know what’s important and what’s not.

And there’s another connection with what you’re saying, Felix: Many people have this expectation that science (like math) is all about that 3rd, 5th, or Nth decimal place, and if the scientist gets that decimal place wrong, well, then, their conclusions are also all “wrong”. That’s generally really not the case, but again, it comes from a lack of actual experience with math and science. And the layperson’s tendency is definitely towards pedantry, rather than actually understanding the (generally qualitative) picture of what’s actually happening in a physical system.

Pedantry where it doesn’t belong: it has the side effect of working quite well with one’s confirmation bias, since it allows you considerable flexibility in what kind of data you accept as true, or not.

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By: samadamsthedog http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/10/31/pedantry-and-numeracy-in-journalism/comment-page-1/#comment-48506 Fri, 01 Nov 2013 00:46:53 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/?p=22683#comment-48506 i’m only a dog (iOAD™) but Someone told me a joke He heard when He worked for a large company. His boss, when giving a presentation, used to tell two jokes to find out whether the audience were technical people or businessmen. (There were no busnesswomen in those days — sorry.) If they laughed at one joke, they were scientists. If they laughed at the other, they were businessmen. If they laughed at both, it was a mixed audience. (He never said what happened if they didn’t laugh at all.) Anyway, here’s the one businessmen would laugh at.

There was a guy whose business was buying companies and making them more profitable. He visited a small company whose owner was retiring with the idea of making an offer. He examined the books. Last year: fabulous profits. The year before: fabulous profits. And so on as far back as he could see. So he said to the owner, “You have been amazingly successful for many years. I’m really impressed. How do you do it?”

His reply was, “Well, I make ’em for 3 cents and sell ’em for a nickel, and you’d be amazed how that two percent adds up.”

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By: Soup http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/10/31/pedantry-and-numeracy-in-journalism/comment-page-1/#comment-48505 Thu, 31 Oct 2013 18:00:56 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/?p=22683#comment-48505 In my back and forth with Felix on Twitter I already said a lot of what Felix wrote here in his blog:

I’m not asking for exactness, I was asking for transparency of how they got to their number. I also said it only matters when the margin of error changes the context of the story.

Those little facts might have got in the way of what was still a very interesting blog post!

You can go back and check the Storify that Felix linked to and see for yourself.

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By: 12thStDavid http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/10/31/pedantry-and-numeracy-in-journalism/comment-page-1/#comment-48504 Thu, 31 Oct 2013 17:54:37 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/?p=22683#comment-48504 Surely it is of note that Mr. De Rosa’s employer is called Circa. WIth his zeal for hyperdeterminism, does it not trouble him that his own company’s very name is shorthand for approximation?

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By: TimWorstall http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/10/31/pedantry-and-numeracy-in-journalism/comment-page-1/#comment-48498 Thu, 31 Oct 2013 10:38:15 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/?p=22683#comment-48498 “So long as the number that’s printed is plausibly somewhere reasonably likely to be in the fat bit of the distribution, it doesn’t make sense for critics like DeRosa to call it out for being inaccurate.”

I tend to argue that as long as you’ve got the first digit correct and the correct number of digits then you’re doing well enough.

Certainly it’s a standard high enough that large portions of the press don’t manage to achieve…..

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By: keith_ng http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/10/31/pedantry-and-numeracy-in-journalism/comment-page-1/#comment-48497 Thu, 31 Oct 2013 07:58:26 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/?p=22683#comment-48497 I agree that the difference between $22 and $27 in the story is inconsequential, but not all numbers are probabilistic. Results from sampling are probabilistic. Estimates are probabilistic. But I spent $16.50 on dinner – not $16.5000001, not $16.00 +/- 0.5. There are plenty of unambiguous, absolute numbers in the real world.

In the Bitcoin story, the uncertainty doesn’t stem from anything mathematical – it’s just because he doesn’t remember the date, and journalists couldn’t really do anything about it. But where they can, they should, right? After all, I can spell “Barak Obama” wrong and it doesn’t really change the meaning, but it is nonetheless reasonable to strive for accuracy wherever you can.

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By: keith_ng http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/10/31/pedantry-and-numeracy-in-journalism/comment-page-1/#comment-48496 Thu, 31 Oct 2013 07:57:16 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/?p=22683#comment-48496 I agree that the difference between $22 and $27 in the story is inconsequential, but not all numbers are probabilistic. Results from sampling are probabilistic. Estimates are probabilistic. But I spent $16.50 on dinner – not $16.5000001, not $16.00 +/- 0.5. There are plenty of unambiguous, absolute numbers in the real world.

In the Bitcoin story, the uncertainty doesn’t stem from anything mathematical – it’s just because he doesn’t remember the date, and journalists couldn’t really do anything about it. But where they can, they should, right? After all, I can spell “Barak Obama” wrong and it doesn’t really change the meaning, but it is nonetheless reasonable to strive for accuracy wherever you can.

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By: keith_ng http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/10/31/pedantry-and-numeracy-in-journalism/comment-page-1/#comment-48495 Thu, 31 Oct 2013 07:56:37 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/?p=22683#comment-48495 I agree that the difference between $22 and $27 in the story is inconsequential, but not all numbers are probablistic. Results from sampling are probablistic. Estimates are probablistic. But I spent $16.50 on dinner – not $16.5000001, not $16.00 +/- 0.5. There are plenty of unambiguous, absolute numbers in the real world.

In the Bitcoin story, the uncertainty doesn’t stem from anything mathematical – it’s just because he doesn’t remember the date, and journalists couldn’t really do anything about it. But where they can, they should, right? After all, I can spell “Barak Obama” wrong and it doesn’t really change the meaning, but it is nonetheless reasonable to strive for accuracy wherever you can.

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