April 5, 2021

Math in Style

Following on the lines of this previous post, the authors of the book How to Read Numbers have a well-intentioned article designed to be a style guide regarding numbers for journalists.

It's not that the article is wrong--far from it! It simply won't be followed by current journalists, because if they did they would be out of a job. For example:

1. Put numbers into context
Ask yourself: is that a big number? If Britain dumps 6 million tons of sewage in the North Sea each year, that sounds pretty bad.[i] But is it a lot? What’s the denominator? What numbers do you need to understand whether that is more or less than you’d expect? In this case, for instance, it’s probably relevant that the North Sea contains 54 thousand billion tons of water.

This will never pass editorial muster at the New York Times! How can you possibly obfuscate, confuse, and terrorize readers if they have proper context? I mean, the next thing you know there might be demands for context for other topics like racism or poverty and the carefully constructed narratives will fall apart!

Then there's my personal bugbear:

2. Give absolute risk, not just relative
If you tell me that eating burnt toast will raise my risk of a hernia by 50 per cent, that sounds worrying. But unless you tell me how common hernias are, it’s meaningless.

No no no no no. That only encourages thinking, and if people start thinking...well, they might wonder why they need to read newspapers. And other catastrophic outcomes.

They want people frightened and confused, and clarity in numbers reduces fear and confusion. It also allows people to focus on what really needs to be fixed, instead of what the prog left thinks should be fixed (and the fact that these two categories rarely overlap is telling). It's also very revealing that the prog left is terrified of people understanding the topics under discussion. If they really had the facts on their side, wouldn't they welcome debate and discussion?