There is danger in numbers
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 February 2004)

The first issue of a new Canadian magazine, The Walrus, which was launched last fall with many noisy promises of excellence, contained a peculiar mistake. As the editors explained in a subsequent issue: "A photo caption indicated that Canada Steamship Lines delivers 2.1 tonnes of coal each season to Stelco. It should have read 2.1 million tonnes."

Some readers may have wondered what caused so grand an error, but there's no reason for surprise. It contains numbers, and therefore it's an error of the sort often encountered in journalism. When an article or column or even a caption involves mathematics, most journalists (present company not excepted) doze off. It is our worst area of non-expertise by far. There are journalists who congratulate themselves when they finally grasp the difference between the mean and the average, or learn how to explain the bell curve. So The Walrus, at its inception, was joining the mainstream of journalism. It was making the kind of mistake that any journalist could make and most do.

In this case it was an order-of-magnitude error, the kind that's likeliest to befall the journalist who has no feeling for math. Good journalists sit up straight in alarm when they see a word misused, but they can glance over a dozen order-of-magnitude errors and notice nothing.

For some reason, that kind of mistake seems especially to afflict The New York Times. For instance, in October the Times gave the Illinois budget deficit as $5-million and a day later corrected it to $5-billion. In December it misstated the weight of the bombs that U.S. forces in Iraq had recently dropped on urban guerrillas, necessitating this correction: "They are 500 pounds each, not 500 tons."

A more typical error, common in journalism as everywhere, occurred on Wednesday when the Times greatly understated the victory of John Edwards over John Kerry in South Carolina. Edwards received around 45% of the vote to Kerry's 30% -- a difference of 15 percentage points, true, but not 15%, which is what the Times said. Expressed in per cent, his total exceeded Kerry's by about 50.

That's the kind of thing we get wrong all the time, percentage points versus per cent. The Times has also been known to confuse billions and trillions when forecasting the national debt that will develop over the next decade.

At the University of British Columbia a couple of years ago, a researcher named Nicole Bailey tested 23 journalism students and found many of them unable to convert from litres to gallons, select a median income from a list of five salaries, understand percentiles, convert US$20 to Canadian, or compute a percentage change in the value of a stock. Her research appeared in the journalism department publication under the title "No numbers please -- we're journalists."

She quoted a Vancouver Sun business editor who said he was baffled "by how many journalists seem to be able to do their jobs while having a terror of anything to do with mathematics." (This is why all Canadian journalists are in love with the Auditor-General, Sheila Fraser. She puts the meat of meaning on her numbers before she sends them out. Sometimes she gives the impression she's writing the editorials for us as well.)

In 1995 Melvin Mencher of the Columbia journalism school wrote an article headed "Young Journalists Are Terrified by Numbers." With rare exceptions, that remains true. But Tamara Slomka, writing in the Ryerson Review of Journalism last year, neatly identified a crucial paradox connected with this failing: While journalists fear and dislike math, we adore statistics.

We can't get enough of them. We think they prove something, so we sprinkle them through our stories even when we don't understand who generated them or why: The average child watches 100,000 acts of violence on TV before starting school; the common cold costs North American employers $2.8-billion a year. Sometimes we're like tone-deaf people who insist on singing at the party.

A few journalism schools have tried offering math as an option, but in general the outlook for improvement looks bleak. Only journalists, in fact, can fix it. One day they may decide that being incompetent with numbers is as bad as being incompetent with words, and improve themselves. Meanwhile, shrewd readers will cast a cold eye on figures that appear in newspapers.

I once attended a conference in Florida of journalism professors pondering the future directions of their craft. A teacher from New Hampshire, who had also served for a while in the state government, explained to us that most journalists can't begin to understand the intricacies of a state or federal budget; they lack the mathematics and accounting skills, so they can't read critically. As a result, much that politicians and bureaucrats do sails over their heads. He said, "I now believe the survey I once read which concluded that the main reason people choose to enrol in journalism schools is that they can't do math."

At this, everyone laughed, of course. I think it was the most anxious laughter I ever heard. It had the hollow sound of a nervous guilt.

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