Seeing Through The Media Numbers Game Aint As Easy as 1-2-3

The Numbers Game

There’s nothing quite as confounding as the numbers game.

Whether being wilfully misused, skillfully manipulated, or cheerfully misunderstood, numbers can turn ‘facts’ into incomprehensible mush.

Enter stage right the mathematician Matt Parker, who issued a hoax media release at the end of December. It showed an astonishingly clear and powerful link between the number of telephone masts in any given area and an increased birth rate.

All of the figures were accurate and from credible, publicly available sources. Just one snag: these figures showed correlation, not causality. In fact, it is perfectly understandable that the number of births and the number of phone masts would each increase according to the size of population. But one does not cause the other.

Commendably, nobody in the media picked up Matt Parker’s intentionally misleading story, even at the height of the festive silly season.

I came across this tale when it was discussed on Radio 4’s excellent More Or Less show, which takes a light-hearted look behind the stats. I’d heartily recommend subscribing to the podcast

As a student journalist I was introduced to the phrase, lies, damned lies and statistics. The term was popularised by Mark Twain, it is often credited to Benjamin Disraeli. Whoever came up with it gets my eternal thanks. This pithy little quote has since underlined my healthy disdain for any material professing to give some startling, numbers-based insight into our lives.

While working for various newspapers, colleagues were scowlingly skeptical about any story from a PR firm which referred to the findings of a ‘survey’. Now that I’m a PR man I still despair of the faux studies, research, polls and audits which are cranked out by certain quarters of the PR industry and I’m equally vexed at the media which picks up on this flim-flam.

You know the kind of things I mean – 50% of women would like to share a taxi journey with Sean Connery, or 82% of men say pneumatic model Jordan would be the ideal woman to take on an inter rail holiday round Europe.

But it’s not just PRs who are to blame. Newspapers can adeptly and adroitly work just about any set of statistics to suit their editorial purposes.

At Holyrood Partnership we’ve been working with Scotland’s care regulator, the Care Commission, since 2005. Among the many media releases we have managed on its behalf was one which backfired, thanks to some unexpected media spin.

The release summarised the findings of a major piece of research, which showed that parents were widely satisfied with the quality of care provided by the thousands of registered child minders in Scotland.

The study showed that 93% of parents were ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’. Yet a quality Sunday newspaper chose to interpret the figure by highlighting the other 7% of parents – and carried a front page article about the ‘crisis’ in Scotland’s childcare sector.

Numbers – and more accurately statistics – are routinely misappropriated, abused or simply misinterpreted.

Thankfully, in this information age there are any number of people dedicated to expertly debunking the myths and interrupting the spin. If you are interested in getting behind the numbers then, as  well as the More Or Less podcast, here are a few other links worth checking out:

Freakonomics – The astounding and confounding work of ‘rogue economist’ Steven Levitt told with the help of journalist Stephen Dubner.
As well as checking out the blog on the New York Times, treat yourself to the book, Freakonomics or its follow-up, SuperFreakonomics – to find out exactly why the pair terrify many so-called ‘experts’ who practices statistical sleight of hand (there’s also a film based on their work, but I haven’t seen it).

Information Is Beautiful – check out the work of journalist David McCandless, who has made his name by visualising and visually interpreting huge data sets to make them far easier to understand.
Particularly worth checking is his TED talk from 2010 – including his highly amusing demonstration of the world’s first carbon neutral volcano.

Finally, on a slightly different theme, this fascinating polemic from computer scientist Jaron Lanier. He challenges the increasing view among the technically literate (from Facebook to Wikileaks) that “information in sufficiently large quantity automatically becomes Truth”.
Powerful stuff.

If you have any other suggestions on useful sites, writers, bloggers or other sources who help us manage the information firehose (particularly the statistics), I’d be delighted if you’d leave a link in the comment section.


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