Saturday, January 29, 2005

Fighting innumeracy

The latest "The Numbers Guy" column from the Wall Street Journal can be found here. In it, Carl Bialik breaks down the numbers in a recently published survey about lost PDAs and cell phones.

He has good advice: "Too much precision in a statistic is a good signal to dig deeper into the methodology and the origin."

But how do we as copy editors learn enough about numbers to realize when a statistic is too precise? I think a good starting point is by reading this column every week. Get used to the questions Bialik is asking; try to understand why he is asking them. Then practice asking similar questions about the numbers you see in copy.

Most of us will admit that we have a lot of learning to do in this area. Don't wait around for the newsroom to have a brown-bag on it.


At 7:58 PM, January 30, 2005, Blogger Drew said...

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At 7:58 PM, January 30, 2005, Blogger Drew said...

I was thinking about this the other day: For someone who got into journalism in part because it was an easy way to avoid math -- yes, I hate it that much -- I certainly do a lot of it.

But that's just an aside. I'm not too certain what Mr. Bialik is talking about by "too much precision." I may be rusty, but any time you extrapolate data from a small sample, you run into problems. That's just the nature of the beast. And if you set yourself dilligently to attacking the methodology of every survey that comes across your desk, editing statistics with vigor and enthusiasm, I bet you'll end up 86-ing half of the bullshit surveys around which we base the myriad brites that leaven the daily report. And quality has consequences: Fewer stories, smaller newsholes, fewer copy editors. One day you're sitting pretty, changing "that" to "which." The next, you're out of a job, left to your own wits on the cruel, cold streets. The humanity of it all!

Save yourself, I say. Do a half-assed job.

At 1:05 PM, February 01, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

I'd say there's enough crap out there that it would be tough for us to edit ourselves out of a job.

But you may have it tougher than I do, Drew. Numbers come up more regularly in biz copy than they do in general news. But I bet I have to read about more bogus polls.


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