January 09, 2009

Innumeracy in the media

It's such a little thing, but I get just completely infuriated when media use numbers to sound like they're saying something, without actually saying anything at all. For instance, these lines from BBC article:

While [the Juan Valdez icon] has ascended, winning various advertising awards, Colombia's coffee industry has declined.

In the 1950s, it made up 80% of the country's exports.

Today, Colombia produces less green coffee than Vietnam and only a quarter as much as Brazil.

They give three numbers in an effort to show the decline of the Colombian coffee industry, but in fact they are incomparable: the numbers they present for Vietnam and Brazil are entirely consistent with the possibility that coffee still make up 80% of Colombian exports. We just don't know. Similarly, given only these data it's entirely possible that 1950s Colombia produced less than Vietnam or Brazil.

I'm not sure which bothers me most: that the journalist might not understand that the numbers are not comparable, that the journalist might think his readers won't notice, or that he might be right in such an assumption.

"Chicago enjoys a myth about itself---tough, brawling, but also amiable---that's grounded in a certain amount of bad behavior. A lot of people here like the legend of corruption, if not the actual practice. Corruption makes good stories." --Mary Schmich

Posted by blahedo at 3:01pm on 9 Jan 2009
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