Burris: Numbers equal alarming results

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One of the things beginning journalism students often tell me is they want to go into a profession that doesn't have a whole lot of numbers. "I'm just not good at math" is an oft-heard refrain. Actually this kind of numeric ignorance is more common than you might think. Unfortunately, almost every news story that has numbers in it is probably wrong, or at least biased.

I was reading in the sports pages last season that one football team was a 5-and-a-half point favorite. Now, just stop to think about that for a moment: 5-and one-half points. How in the world do you score half a point in football? Maybe the handicappers will allow you a half point if a field goal attempt bounces off the goal post.

Often we read news stories that make predictions based on current estimates: Such-and-such is a number now, so in 20 years the number will be this much. So try this set of numerical fun facts: In 1977, the year Elvis Presley died, there were 170 Elvis impersonators. There are now about 85,000. That must mean that by the year 2019, more than one-third of the world's population will be Elvis impersonators.

I can hardly wait.

Unfortunately, many of the numbers we read, see and hear can't be checked by readers, viewers and listeners: pollution levels are getting larger/smaller; test scores are going up/down; our water is getting better/worse.

When these numbers are then used with incomplete statements of fact, the results can be truly alarming, and lead us to a distorted view of the world. For instance, we read a lot about the thousands of children who are kidnapped each year. What that statement doesn't tell you is that most kidnappings of children are done by the non-custodial parent. The actual number of true child kidnappings is less than 200 each year.

Perhaps we need to go back to what economist John Maynard Keynes said in the 1930s: "It's better to be roughly right, than precisely wrong."

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Larry Burris
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