Posts Tagged 'Statto fever'

Joy Index, part two: US three times less depressed than Europe

If you find this image of despair stimulating, click on the image to go to “The brokers with hands on their faces blog”

Diligent Talknormalists will recall that, just over a year ago, I introduced the Joy Index to measure the mood of the English-speaking world. The index was compiled by dividing the number of stories in the news media mentioning “joy” by the number mentioning “gloom”. I exclude sports reports, which are fun but produce a transient excess of both; and obituaries, where our joy or gloom at someone’s death would probably owe more to that person than the state of the world.

When the line goes up, we’re becoming more joyful. When if goes down, we’re becoming gloomier. Actually, the index is dominated by gloominess – the amount of joy in our lives, or at least in the newspapers, is remarkably stable.

In the US, the average of the Joy Index was at an unsurprising historical low, just above 2.0, during 2008 – the same level as it reached in the week of the 9/11 attack. In the first week of August 2011 it was all the way down to 1.62.

So, first the good news! In 2012 the US has been, until recently, much less gloomy if we take a monthly average: the TN Joy Index has kept well above 2.0 at all times. Of course, October was a gloomy month. Hurricanes are like that. But, compared to the darkest days of 2008, there’s between two and four times less gloominess in the news:

Meanwhile, in Europe, the English-language press isn’t so optimistic. The index shows there’s about three times as much gloom for each unit of joy as there is in the US. I blame austerity, or maybe socialism:

It is, in the words of the nonsense phrase, a global world. It’s possible that Americans just don’t like to write about gloomy things as much, though that would be a recent phenomenon: last time I calculated the index, there wasn’t this US-Europe split. Most of the time, we are all in it together. When you take the indices in November 2011 as a starting point, the ratio of joy-to-gloom in Europe and the US rises and falls in just the same way (until Sandy in October):

We’re on the same emotional rollercoaster – it’s just that Europeans really, really want to get off. This could be because, more often, the ultra-gloomy news has been happening in Europe. When the index dipped, the three most important topics in gloomy stories were the Euro zone, consumer confidence and Central Banks in Europe, and Euro zone, consumer confidence and monetary policy in the US.

When the index went up, the gloom story headlines showed no strong pattern. Clearly it is better to worry about many things, some of the time, than one thing, all the time.

Think of the upswings in the Joy Index as having a hangover while it is raining outside, your car needs a new gearbox, and a small child has been singing really annoying made-up songs for three hours. Never mind! In the Joy Index downswings, your life would be exactly the same – except the bank repossesses your house as well.

One final point, for those of you who read blogs while wondering, “this is all very well, but what do the markets think?” Since November 2010 the US Joy Index has been a statistically significant predictor of the size of the month-end change in the Dow’s moving average. As I said last time: sell gloom, buy joy.

The dangers of data journalism

The World Bank: “Our mission is to fight poverty with passion and professionalism for lasting results” it says. It also provides shelter from the rain for that little panda.

My previous post on data journalism might have conveyed the impression that I think it will cure all the problems of the press-release-rewriting style of journalism that readers of the Metro, for example, experience. Following several emails, I think I need to clarify.

I praised BBC Radio’s More or Less, but Matt Berkley emailed to criticise the programme’s feature on the World Bank’s global poverty stats, which he thinks “misleads in several important aspects”. Matt’s comment interested me (not least because I have, in another life, done some research on global poverty statistics), so I had another look. Feel free to read his complaint to the BBC and compare it to the published story, or the podcast.

Data doesn’t remove the room for debate, it just shifts the debate on to different territory. A data journalist will still make value judgements – but those should, where possible, be informed by statistical analysis, not an appeal to authority.

Now, attempting to report world poverty in a newspaper article sets the bar extremely high: even the meaning of the word “poverty” is a value judgement.

We can do better than “world poverty is decreasing because the World Bank says it is”, which is a simple appeal to authority: those guys are the experts, so they must be correct.

Given the world Bank report, journalists may ask:

  • Why we pick a certain income level to indicate poverty? Even if we accept that far fewer people now live on $1.25 or less, there are almost as many people surviving on $2 or less as there were before. The poverty line may be defined as not starving, or not having some defined “basic needs” met, or not being among the poorest 20 per cent in your country. These are all different numbers, and all used by economists. Note: you can’t eradicate the last type of poverty, in case you were wondering.
  • Whether we correct an arbitrary poverty line for the relative price of the things that poor people buy in different countries (also, how do we decide what those things are? The poor in different countries eat different food, and have different habits, which may make some parts of the world seem richer, when the quality of life is no better).
  • Do we use a measure of earned income, or of what those people can eat or trade? The urban poor may have a bit more cash than the rural poor, but don’t have domestic animals, for example, so they might spend more but eat less. This is very difficult to measure.
  • Most seriously, do the statistics use data to manipulate the headline? If you have done the rest of the analysis, this becomes clearer. Governments (or World Banks) are sometimes accused of picking a threshold, or a measurement process, to suit a carefully-chosen good news agenda.

An example of the final point: the government of Cynicalia wants to claim that it has abolished poverty, with the poverty line defined as $1.25 a day (as the World Bank defines it). There are a million working class Cynicalians earning on average $1 a day, and a million middle class Cynicalians earning on average $3 a day, and the president and his family earn $100,000 a day. It might squeeze the middle so that there are two million people earning $2 a day, while not redistributing the president’s wealth at all which is hidden in Switzerland. The government can now send a press release claiming that no one is poor, and that more than half the country is as well off, or better off, than before the reform.

A journalist can check the numbers of poor people at different poverty lines (maybe even using different measurements of income), investigate how the poverty line is calculated, or examine the effect of different redistribution policies. The figures exist, though working out how they were calculated can be a headache. All this takes time and some expertise, which is a problem.

Or the newspaper can just give up, and tell the journalist to repeat the government’s claim that Poverty is History. In which case that journalist is a loyal Cynic.

The article that Matt criticises covers many of the assumptions on poverty lines in some detail, and highlights their shortcomings. He feels the BBC should have done better.

I don’t agree with most of Matt’s complaint, for two editorial reasons. The first is that, where assumptions are made, I think they are clearly and accurately spelt out. The second is that this feature does not attempt to support a conclusion, merely to investigate how we calculate it (I also disagree with his analysis for a couple of economic reasons, but this is not the forum to air that discussion).

Data journalism is becoming trendy. I wish I’d written about Nate Silver in 2008, before I looked like a bandwagon jumper. But here’s the point: statistics do not resolve all arguments. A data journalist needs to understand how the data was collected, how it is presented, and whether the conclusions are justified by the data. The journalist also needs to resist overclaiming, based on a the emotional appeal of what the data seems to say.

I can show you plenty of examples of bad data journalism, where a little understanding can be as bad as none at all: I’ll leave it to you to ask.

Nate Silver’s numbers game

Nate Silver: hard to believe this man is a statistician

For the second US election in a row, the winner is a guy called Nate Silver, who might be the future of intelligent journalism. He rescues us from the tyranny of columnists who simply write about the comments of their own heads.

Nate blogs at, which is, since 2010, a New York Times blog. He analyses opinion polls, but he does it very, very well. He is entertaining and readable, even if you don’t care who just won the election in the US.

I discovered Nate’s analysis by accident in 2008 when I was looking for some statistics to undermine one of the nuttier blog opinions by data-lite controversialist Melanie Phillips (which made it very nutty indeed). Fivethirtyeight has a rigour that journalism seems to have mislaid in the internet era in a search for sensation. He does a seemingly simple thing extremely well: when an opinion poll is released, he adds it to a model which creates an aggregate. If the model is well-constructed, this has smaller margins for error and less chance of systematic bias. It is more likely to reflect the true state of the world.

The clever part is that he doesn’t just produce an average. He weights the polls, depending on their sample size, the way the information was obtained, the historical accuracy of the polling company, when it was conducted, the exact question that was asked, and so on. He looks for statistical bias – a consistent under- or over-reporting of candidate’s popularity. He adjusts his own model if he finds evidence that it is biased. Importantly, he writes nerdy blog posts about what he is doing, explaining his reasoning, and pointing out possible flaws in his work.

The result is that “outliers” – polls that, through random sampling, produce a freak result – have little importance on Fivethirtyeight – while on the internet and the news channels they tend to dominate the agenda, albeit fleetingly. This means his reporting is less shouty, but it has proved to be stunningly accurate for two elections in a row: at the time of writing, his analysis has correctly predicted the result in every state for the 2012 US presidential election, and the electoral college vote too.

Having a model doesn’t necessarily mean you will be correct – there are plenty of other statistical models which predicted the election less accurately. Fivethirtyeight carefully spells out the steps in its analytical process (though not the precise parameters of the model), so we can make an informed judgement on the quality of the findings. Any model is open to criticism from other statisticians - but this means they can have an adult, public conversation about what might be improved, or what the impact of a flaw in the analysis might be. We can learn from this, too.

This wouldn’t be important if it was just a different way to present the same news; but this type of analysis creates fresh insight. By polling day 2012, the model predicted a greater than 90 per cent chance of an Obama victory; and yet organisations like the BBC and the FT were using lazy phrases like “too close to call” and “on a knife edge”. If newspapers are prepared to do this type of analysis routinely, I suggest, it offers huge potential for creating an open, analytical type of serious journalism led by numbers and observed reality, not opinions.

Old jokes department: “And what do you do?”

Not every journalist can be a stats geek, though I think they should have more compulsory education in how to interpret data, and would prefer that newspapers enforced an in-house ban on reporting surveys that are statistical nonsense – which, in my experience, is most of them (I’ve written those survey-based articles in the past, and reported lots of rubbish data as if it were spotless, which I regret).

Newspapers and magazines are cutting back on conventional journalism. Budgets are tight. It’s probably too much to hope that we can create a new type of data-journalist, or that newspapers will suddenly grow a statistical conscience. It needn’t be expensive: a laptop and some specialist software is perfectly adequate to do the statistical research that can validate the claims that powerful people make. It’s the job of the media to investigate these claims – not just talk to one person who agrees, and another who disagrees. On Radio 4, More or Less does an entertaining job of validating reported statistics (download the podcasts, they are excellent). Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science posts are also a model of this approach.

It’s patronising to assume that readers can’t cope with statistical analysis. Clearly, many don’t like it, and some misunderstand it; but that’s true of any type of journalism that goes beyond the obvious. The conclusions (especially those that go against gut feel or conventional wisdom) may be unpopular: just read the critical comments on Nate Silver’s blog. It’s also true that science isn’t the last word on a subject, just a powerful way of testing an assumption. Statistics involves making value judgements in how you treat the numbers, in the same way as a journalist makes a judgement about how much credibility to give any source. But in statistics there is the opportunity to be explicit about those judgements, and then go where the numbers take us.

This type of insight is a fundamental tool, in an increasingly complex world, if we want to make informed decisions. The alternative is to just place trust in the conclusions of “experts”, of which there seem to be an ever-increasing number quoted on TV or in newspapers.

I’ll leave the conclusion to one of Nate’s commenters, who explains it better than I do:

Rather than cheer for Nate because we all like his Obama forecasts, how about cheering for him because he might believe in a world where numbers and rational analysis are vital to how we make decisions, even in those cases where we don’t like what the numbers imply?… It’s not about hoping you will win at Vegas. It’s about understanding how the Vegas game works.

Shooting the messengers

A firing squad: sometimes it's not so much about who to to shoot, as who to save

Having been distracted by a research project that was like a giant, academic version of Talk Normal, I’m even more convinced of the power of the dark forces that would undermine our work. On the other hand, I’m less certain who the dark forces are.

It’s always easy to blame PR companies and their often laughable press releases for the pain of irritating jargon. In the UK, at least, that’s not the end of the story.

Let me show you why: I did some research which measured the frequency of the top seven jargon phrases identified in David Meerman Scott’s Gobbledygook Manifesto in 2006, which I already used as the source to find the worst press release in history. I looked at the frequency of these seven jargon phrases since 1990. While the use of jargon has increased dramatically – especially during the 1990s – the frequency of the jargon phrases was consistently approximately equal in newspapers and press releases in the UK.

So in the UK, on this (admittedly limited) evidence, jargon’s not just a PR company problem.

In the graph below, each blob maps the relative frequency of a jargon phrase in one year. If it’s on the diagonal line, it appears equally frequently in newspapers and press releases in that year.

Below the diagonal line, and the phrase is more frequent in press releases. Above it, and it’s more more frequent in the press. I used only major news sources and newswires, not geeky jargon-filled magazines.

As an aside, I did a similar plot for US sources, and the same jargon phrases are between 10 and 20 times more frequent in US press releases as they are in US news; and US news has much less jargon than UK news. So the conclusion that I draw is that, if a journalist’s job is partly about weeding out jargon from its raw material, American journalists are doing a good job and British journalists are doing a rubbish one.

Rooney, jazz or pork: which has most class?

Class is permanent

Is Wayne Rooney world class?

For those of you who don’t like football (and gosh, aren’t you going to have a miserable summer as a result), this might seem a pointless, irrelevant or even irritating question. He’ll do exactly the same thing in South Africa whether he is world class or not. But we’re a class-based society, and so we can’t let him out of the country until he has been graded.

It’s not like sport, and football in particular, is in need of another measurement system - what with goals, wins, losses, draws, points, tournaments and cups. World classness, though, has two advantages: it can mean anything you want, and you can apply it to anything or anyone if you’re lazy enough. It is a cross-sector measurement system which helps us to pat ourselves on the back in a non-specific way: if you describe yourself as world class on your web site we might think you’re a fantastist, but we can’t take you to court for it.

At least, not until I’m making the laws.

And so in world classness news this week: is Miami a world class city? Will the UK’s high-speed rail project be world class enough? When ESI Expands Its Singapore-Based Operations to Support Its Asian Micromachining & Passive Components Customers, does this enhance its position as a leading supplier of world-class photonic and laser systems? I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you the answer.

As world classness has become a de facto global ranking system, I thought I’d make use of it. So I Googled news for what is “world class” today and picked the first two non-sporting products I could find to compare to the Little Ginger Wizard. Using this I can get some kind of insight into Rooney’s world classness in a wider context.

Which is why I am the only blogger, today at least, who will give you an analysis of how Rooney rates against jazz music and the US National Pork Board.

Like England’s Great Hope, jazz music inspires strong emotions. Let us not forget that, in December 2009, an attendee at a jazz festival called the police when he heard Larry Ochs play. You decide if he was justified:

But is jazz as a whole better or worse than Wayne Rooney? And are both of them classier than The National Pork Board – after all, pork is a controversial meat that has been dividing selectors’ opinions ever since Deuteronomy didn’t pick it all those years ago.

For Rooney, jazz and the Pork Board I divided the number of articles each year that claim world classness by the number that didn’t. First, the good news. Rooney’s becoming more world class:

But as you can see, opinion is volatile. Not so with jazz, which is consistently accorded world class status far in excess of that of England’s Pugnacious Goal Machine:

Jazz has shown staying power, but there’s a lot of people claiming to be world class these days. Rooney might be scoring at will, but in the run-up to the World Cup he’s still not as consistently reported as being world class as The US National Pork Board:

Next time an England football fan tells you that “I think we can win it this time, Rooney’s world class”, just say to him that it’s a good job we’re not playing the Game of Bacon against team USA on 12 June. On the other hand, we could take them at jazz. That Larry Ochs is rubbish.

Forward to the future

As MG Rover gradually coasted to a stop in 2003, Kevin Howe, the group chief executive of Phoenix Venture Holdings told the press that “Going forward we will remain focused on continuing to reverse the loss situation.” Howe had a grasp of gobbledygook that one doesn’t often see, even in a group chief executive – although, bearing in mind that he was speaking to an audience of motoring journalists, he really missed the opportunity to tell us all that he was looking for a gear change, that he was parking the problem, or that previous management had been asleep at the wheel. But overused car metaphors are a different blog: today I’m thinking about his decision to “go forward”, rather than in any other direction.
I searched Factiva for the phrase “going forward we…”. I added the “we” so that the results would omit the literal use of going forward – for example the results would leave out descriptions of footballers going forward on the pitch, but capture the waffle of the club’s directors going forward at the AGM.
It’s a regular and sustained increase, even when you break apart the five-year blocks I have used. Between 1980 and 1985 I could find only six uses of the phrase. Happy days.
“Going forward” is hogging the middle lane of what-to-do-next jargon. To show this, I grouped “going forward we” to its close relative “moving forward we”, as weasel phrases, and compared them to the two non-MBA phrases “in future we” and “from now on we”. We get a Phillips Weasel Index for the trend towards going forwardness. As the line rises, people are substituting “going/moving forward” for “in the future”/”from now on”:
Between 2002 and 2009 we became about 50 per cent more likely to do something going forward than to do it either “in the future” or “from now on”.
If we really want to be nitpickers – indulge me – then I can try to use my physics A Level. Here goes: when we treat time as a fourth dimension it has a property that breadth, depth and height don’t have. To use another motoring metaphor, time is a one-way street. In three dimensions you can go back and forth, up and down, left and right. In time you’re always heading from the past to the future. You are always going forward because, without Michael J. Fox’s DeLorean car (more motoring), you can’t go back.
So it’s a waste of breath when someone tells you that he or she is going to do something “going forward”. It is redundant, unnecessary, without a function, superfluous, not needed, no longer useful.
You could argue, using this logic, that “in the future” or “from now on” is equally redundant. A good point. On the other hand, only “going forward” is really, really irritating.

Keep taking the revolutionary tablets

Talking Carl: hero of the revolution

As we put our feet up and mix the first martini of the weekend, we turn our thoughts to what the next week has in store for us. If you’ve been reading the blogs you’ll know that we are on the verge of a revolution. Thanks to Apple’s tablet computer nothing will ever be the same ever again, except for the 10 million people in the UK who have never used the internet, the one third of Europeans who haven’t either, or the 4 billion people in the world who’ve never even used a phone (let alone used one to download an app to tell them where the nearest sushi bar is). But, in the developed world, we organise our revolutions around the availability of consumer electronics these days.

I thought I’d look into how good Apple and Microsoft have been at getting us to mount the barricades for their respective revolutions.

The first chart shows how well, over the last 10 years, the companies have been doing at converting claims that they are revolutionary into news stories that agree with the premise. I restricted this to technology news in newspapers. The line zigs about a bit, but as you can see Microsoft wasn’t making much headway until last year. Windows 7 seems to have got journalists a bit excited – although the line shoots up mostly because there were far fewer Microsoft press releases claiming a revolution than there were in 2008 (when it did nothing particularly revolutionary at all, but was twice as likely to claim that it did).

The second chart takes claims for revolution in any year and subtracts Microsoft’s coverage from Apple’s. If the dot is in the top half of the graph, Apple is winning. In the bottom half, it’s Microsoft. It shows that while journalists are more comfortable saying that Apple was starting a revolution (purple line: top half for the whole decade), Apple’s PR too (orange line) is becoming increasingly comfortable with this particular example of meaningless hyperbole. At the beginning of the decade Apple almost never claimed to be revolutionary. Now, perhaps encouraged by the willingness of journalists to pass on the message, it is three times as likely as Microsoft to claim its products are revolutionary.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m typing this on my iMac while syncing iTunes with my iPhone. I just paid 59p for an iPhone app that displays the little red fella at the top of the post (he’s called Carl). In its own way this app is revolutionary: when I say things to my phone such as “Only an educated and productive people can be truly free,” or “Not a grain of sand will we yield to imperialism,” Carl says it back to me in a cartoon voice while waving his little fist. You can also tickle him.

I’m sure that in the old days we would wait until we had actually seen the product before we decided that something was going to cause a revolution (The Segway, of course, was an exception). Meanwhile if the breathless anticipation of Apple’s iThing continues in the press, Microsoft’s going to spend another year being less revolutionary than Apple. Maybe that’s what happens when you’ve been the status quo for ever.

Faint traces of buttock

In September 2009 The Times Bugle podcast described an apology by the former CEOs of bailed-out banks in front of a UK parliamentary committee as “not so much half-arsed, as containing barely detectable traces of buttock.

As the CEOs of the large US banks appear in front of their senior politicians to admit to as little as possible – while approving billions in bonuses from trading in a market created and supported almost entirely by central banks – it’s worth having a bit of a buttock rummage in the press to see what’s motivating our CEOs to do good.

What are we writing about corporate social responsibility these days? After all, when money’s tight, it’s a pretty obvious thing to cut back if money is more important than ethics.

On first look, there’s good news in the press coverage of CSR. The consistent rise in the number of stories about it since 2002 has continued. There are about four times as many articles about CSR now as there were in 2002, which suggests that interest hasn’t gone away:

What are these stories about? Business ethics in general have been in the news quite a bit in 2009, yet the number of stories that mentioned CSR alongside ethics or ethical behaviour, and didn’t talk about profit, dropped off suddenly:

Still, doesn’t look too bad; the long-term trend is slightly upward. And this is a rough measure: it would not capture a story about how ethics are more important than profit, for example.

Now if we look at the similar graph for CSR stories that mention profitability but not ethical behaviour, we see the opposite effect in 2009: a sudden jump.

Note the scales were different; so to see what’s really going on, let’s overlay the two trends:

Gosh! Our search is not perfect, but in 2002 there were the almost the same number of ethics-not-profit stories as profit-not-ethics stories. Since then the number of ethics-based CSR stories hasn’t really shifted, and is now declining. But look at the coverage for CSR-as-profit! That’s really taking off.

A couple of possible explanations: maybe the only way to protect a CSR programme right now is to convince shareholders and CEOs that it is all about making pots of money. Or maybe we’re all just writing stories about balance sheets now, and find business ethics a bit irrelevant.

In the banking industry in the last 12 months – a sector that has been accused both of being ethically-challenged and far too motivated by profit – there have been 82 stories on CSR that mention ethical behaviour, but not profit. There have been 548 (six times as many) CSR stories that mention profit, but not ethical behaviour.

You might think that business, and especially the financial sector, has often been half-arsed about its social responsibility. If so, these graphs seem to suggest (in Bugle terms) that the press coverage of those responsibilities shows increasingly faint traces of buttock.

All together now

I’m in the middle of writing a book about the epic fails of capitalism (a project that’s got much bigger in the last 12 months), and in the part of the book that deals with mergers – a rich source of epic failure – there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: AOL and Time Warner.

When we were doing the research into the press coverage of the merger, one thing stands out: the number of reporters who faithfully wrote down that the two businesses would capitalise on their synergies, without really asking what those synergies might actually, you know, be.

Synergy is a weasel word for making people redundant and selling the buildings that they worked in, and also a vague placeholder for we want some of their stuff to make our stuff work better. In the first case, using it avoids awkward words like redundancy that make people glum, and in the second, it avoids actually telling us what they are going to do.

It’s now pretty clear that AOL-Time Warner needed a lot of the first type of synergy, because there was bugger all of the second type.

I went back to the Factiva database to see whether there are more businesses claiming synergy these days, and there are, big time. I searched in the European and North American business press, and compared the number of articles mentioning mergers with the number mentioning mergers and synergies too. M&A volumes may be at their lowest for five years but the synergy bubble never bursts. Mentions of synergy are 402 per cent up in the last 30 years, and the rise has been wonderfully consistent:

In just over 30 years it has become five times as likely that a business will describe a merger as providing synergies (or, at least, that this lazy rebranding will be reported in the press).

It might just be that synergy has just become a vogue word. But I think it’s also due to positive word bias, which is far more of a problem.

To explain: every M&A deal has some rationale beyond a pooling of capital and saving on letterheads. The benefits can be difficult to explain, easy to question, or impossible to measure accurately. Three reasons not to go into too much detail if you want to push it through quickly – especially if you’re directly or indirectly incentivised to make the merger work. If you want to create momentum in the media or among shareholders and employees (and in your own mind) it helps to give the benefits a positive-sounding, catchy, go-for-it name.

That name is synergy: code for the things we don’t really want to talk about right now. It won’t make your merger work any better, but it might make more people believe that it will. And if your reward comes more from the deal than the messy aftermath, it pays to talk about synergy.

Worse than nothing

reliabilityFor a feature I’ve just written for Research Magazine I’ve just been chatting to David Spiegelhalter, Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge about how we present statistics. He admits he shouts at the TV when they use statistics that scare or confuse you without helping you.

There are plenty of stats that use percentages or relative likelihoods to compare stuff (before versus after, or this versus that), without really giving us a clue. An example: if you drive 10 miles to by a lottery ticket, you are between 3 and 20 times more likely to die in a car wreck than win the lottery.

The answer to this is not, as my mum pointed out, that you can buy lottery tickets online these days. Comparing the risk of driving (from which, every time you don’t die, you usually get a benefit) and the reward for buying a lottery ticket is like comparing a gun with a gnu because they use the same letters.

The professor would rather we stuck to presenting statistics, where possible, as what would happen to a set of people (10, 100, or for rare events, 1000): for example, according to the Office for National Statistics, for every 1000 people who died in 2008 around 330 died from circulatory (heart) disease – and only five in transport accidents. This might imply that overweight gamblers might be better off walking to buy a lottery ticket than driving. Unless you really, really like living dangerously.

I don’t understand why magazines and newspapers – and marketing departments and think tanks – don’t have a house style on how statistics are presented – for example, insiting that spokespeople qualify “up by 20 per cent” statements with what the expected outcome would be in terms of death, or Euros, or gnus (plus a confidence limit). Newspaper style books have pages about the correct title for a judge and whether you can use aggravate as a synonym for irritate, but I’ve never seen one with instructions on comparative statistics. Maybe it’s because the people who compile style guides know a lot about the meaning of words, but less about the meaning of numbers.

It’s not as if the “for every X people” stat isn’t visual enough. For example, I can give you the interesting (and true) statistic that for every 10 people who come to Talk Normal from a search engine, two have searched for either naked or naked people:

Two from ten

Try this article from Joanna Blythman in The Herald called Scientists must not dictate on public health matters (better leave that job, it seems, to Joanna Blythman). While complaining about Professor David Nutt, she tells us that scientists think their knowledge

is superior to other types of knowledge we might bring to bear on our decisions, such as intuition, experience, observation, or even common sense.

Even when they have used all four, plus scientific method too. She’s a skilled polemicist:

The huffing and puffing of Nutt and his indignant allies has obscured the fact that whatever the rest of society thinks or knows about cannabis…

Note: thinks or knows. As in, if Joanna Blythman thinks something, and has used intuition etc, then she knows it, so it must be better than anything a scientist has boiled up in a laboratory. Especially if she agrees with you.

It doesn’t stop her throwing around a few stats at the end to make her point that the only scientists who know about statistics are the ones who produce statistics she likes. For example:

Now we learn, once again from bona fide scientific research, that pregnant women taking folic acid supplements are up to 30% more likely to produce babies with asthma. Yet still the folic acid lobby is arguing that we should press on regardless with blanket fortification of bread and continue to advocate supplements during pregnancy…

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to use statistics to confuse people. Quite apart from the fact that she neglects to point out that the research isn’t from a random sample and shows a weak correlation, that a lack of folic acid causes spina bifida and other problems, we don’t have a chart that shows the effect of this up to 30% as an outcome for 1000 babies born today. We can’t draw one, because so far this research doesn’t tell us enough with enough certainty. On the other hand, we know a lot about the damage caused to babies by poor nutrition during pregnancy.

One of the problems with the presentation of statistics in the press is that you can always slice the results to be more dramatic then they really are, and that suits a speak-your-branes columnist like Blythman. Even journalists who don’t know much about numbers know how to do this. And so I can’t help thinking that in-house standards for newspapers on how they present statistics about are far more important than pages of rules on how to refer to the wife of a marquess or an earl*.

* marchioness and countess, respectively. Pointless as it is, the second one’s good for pub quizzes.

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