Numbers and Context

Numbers and Context

This is way out of my field, but I want to link to it because it illustrates the way in which numbers can be used deceptively. I still heartily recommend the book How to Lie with Statistics from which the title is derived.

I’m no economist, but I remember a fine discussion in a class “Public Policy toward Business” in which we were debating excess profits, and trying to define the word “excess.” One class member was busily arguing using a definition of profit as “sales – cost of goods sold,” which made the numbers substantially different. The problem is that when the public sees figures such as are used in Ben Stein’s article, they don’t know the definitions involved. They just see someone who supposedly either knows, or knows people who knows, throwing around large numbers. Propagandists in turn realize that most people won’t even remember the numbers themselves. They’ll just remember that they were big.

If there is any one thing I would like to see journalists work on it is taking things like this apart and showing the public how it works. I know the arguments–the public won’t read that, they aren’t specialists and they don’t need to know. But if they’re being fed the propaganda, they also need to know how to understand it. Numbers don’t mean anything apart from the context and the definitions, yet spokesmen for various positions get by with point out that one number is much bigger than another, and then draw a conclusion, and people left with the impression that the numbers proved the point.

If journalists want to truly be useful, they need to learn how to handle the information, and also how to relay it in human language to the non-specialists. C. S. Lewis once commented that every ministerial candidate needed to learn how to translate a serious work of theology into language understandable by the common people. I’m certain many who have to listen to sermons would agree! Journalists, as opposed to mere parrots for media relations folks, should know how to take a complex subject, find the lies, and clarify them to the public.

(HT: The Panda’s Thumb)

2 thoughts on “Numbers and Context

  1. I don’t know much about journalism, but I’d rather not have my news delivered to me by someone who is filtering information through their analysis. If I want it analyzed, I’d rather rely on my own analysis or find someone I trust to analyze it for me after the fact.

    I read the critique of the Ben Stein article, and while I don’t disagree that the idea put forth by Ben is fairly untenable, I thought the critique wasn’t very strong on analysis either. For example stein asserts that a correlation should exist between market stock valuation and corporate profit levels. (the 14% discussion). The critique didn’t dispute the correlation it just said that the two variables measured different types of quanities and therefore was invalid. But in practice correlation can exist between two variables that measure different types of quantities, so the critique is logically inadequate to defeat the initial thesis.

    Thus my preference to leave the analysis to me and let the journalists report what they received unfiltered. The weaknesses of steins arguments are that he draws correlations unsupported by any statistical evidence and then leaps to a conclusion on his assumed correlations. It’s an awful bit of reasoning that most people should be able to see through.

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