Down for the Count

Why can’t journalists get their numbers right?

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Nothing gives a journalistic story more (apparent) credibility than a battery of statistics skillfully deployed. But in a society in which numerical skills are sorely lacking, are journalists giving us numbers we can rely on?

In A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (BasicBooks, 1995), John Allen Paulos takes lazy reporters to task for underachieving mathematically and thereby reinforcing cultural bias and amplifying public ignorance of important issues. For example, he debunks claims that “blacks in New York City vote along racial lines more than whites do”: “The evidence cited was that 95 percent of blacks voted for (black) mayor David Dinkins, whereas only 75 percent of whites voted for (white) candidate (and victor) Rudolph Giuliani. This assertion failed to take into account, however, the preference of most black voters for any Democratic candidate. Assuming that 80 percent of blacks usually vote for Democrats and only 50 percent of whites usually vote for Republicans, one can argue that only 15 percent of blacks voted for Democrat Dinkins based on race and that 25 percent of whites voted for Republican Giuliani based on race.”

Paulos warns that supposedly scientific pollsters are also likely to feed erroneous numbers to a gullible public (via our snoozing watchdogs of the press). He notes that stories about a 1993 Roper poll suggested that nearly a quarter of Americans doubted the reality of the Holocaust, but it turned out that the figure was a consequence of a badly worded question: “Rephrased, the question elicited the less distressing information that only 1 percent of Americans thought that it was ‘possible [that] ... the Nazi extermination of Jews never happened.’”

Confusing correlation with causation is a common error, Paulos cautions. “Studies have shown repeatedly, for example, that children with longer arms reason better than those with shorter arms, but there is no causal connection here. Children with longer arms reason better because they’re older! Consider a headline that invites us to infer a causal connection: Bottled water linked to healthier babies. Without further evidence, this invitation should be refused since affluent parents are more likely both to drink bottled water and to have healthy children.”

Our big fears are sometimes statistical small potatoes. Paulos suggests casting numbers in a new light to provide fresh perspective. In contrast to the plane crashes that disproportionately dominate the front page, he notes, cigarette smoking kills 400,000 Americans annually—the equivalent of three fully loaded jumbo jets crashing each and every day of the year.

Math properly employed can help journalists shed light on environmental topics, medical reports, and economists’ claims. In the wrong hands, though, it merely clouds the issues. And it seems to be in the wrong hands much of the time. One reason may be widespread misunderstanding of what math is. Paulos cites five major misconceptions: that mathematics is essentially a matter of computation, is strictly hierarchical, is without narrative, is only for the elite, and numbs one to the aesthetic and sensual aspects of life.

Paulos rightly emphasizes the ultimate responsibility of reporters and their readers to put things in their proper context—and do the math—particularly in our increasingly irrational age. Unfortunately, his book isn’t always as careful as he wants journalists to be: It’s loosely written and here and there carelessly argued, even though he gets the numbers right.

Not knowing enough is one problem. Knowing too much can amount to the same thing—as demonstrated in Who We Are (Random House, 1995), a revised and updated portrait of America based on the latest U.S. census. New York Times columnist Sam Roberts takes the statistics out for a spin, but the net effect is information overload. To be sure, the clear, broad strokes are there: the population continues to migrate west and south; immigration is booming, swelling the ranks in California, Texas, and Florida; the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the middle class is contracting, and racial minorities are suffering disproportionately.

Roberts does his best to keep things lively with fun facts—“More households owned three vehicles than one”—and of course facts that are less fun: “More Americans now work selling goods in wholesale and retail than in actually manufacturing goods . . . Marriage rates in the U.S. are actually among the world’s highest. But so are divorce and remarriage rates . . . The number of mobile homes grew [in the 1980s] by 60 percent to [constitute] more than one in seven of the nation’s residences.” Which goes to show that certain numbers can be startling and eloquent, even in the midst of a statistical avalanche.