Friday, May 21, 2010

My soul unexpectedly rose

Eds: Emergency adverb deletion notice follows text.

Strayhorn notes the predictable reappearance of Satan's Adverb in the AP's jobs lede of Thursday:

The number of people filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week by the largest amount in three months.

... and, recalling the old ban on "died unexpectedly" in obits,* wonders if it's time to impose a similar ban on AP ledes about economic statistics.

I'm inclined to agree, and not because I dislike adverbs (I don't) or because the one at issue is charmingly misplaced*** (are people filing unexpectedly, or is the rise unexpected?). I think the bigger problem is that journalists appear -- again -- to be genuflecting to some form of statistical inference they don't understand, and thus taking the collective eye off the ball. We're making this a story about how well the bookies did, rather than how well the horses ran.

Here are some recent examples of AP treatment of the same statistic, with the supporting evidence (when supplied; it's usually a graf or two away) in parens:

Feb. 25: Initial claims for U.S. unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week while measures of economic sentiment in Europe and business investment in Britain declined.

Feb. 18: The number of newly laid-off workers filing applications for unemployment benefits
unexpectedly surged last week after having fallen sharply in the previous week. (Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected new claims to fall modestly.)

Feb. 4: The number of newly laid-off workers filing initial claims for jobless benefits
rose unexpectedly last week, evidence that layoffs are continuing and jobs remain scarce. (The Labor Department said Thursday that new claims for unemployment insurance rose by 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 480,000. Wall Street economists had expected a drop to 460,000, according to Thomson Reuters.)

See where this might be going? Here's the AP of March 4:

The Labor Department also said that initial jobless claims dipped last week after two straight weeks of unexpected increases. New claims fell to 469,000, better than the 470,000 economists had forecast.

At this point -- the difference between a prediction of 470,000 and a result of 469,000 -- it's probably pertinent to note that there are (broadly) two ways to make predictions of this sort. You can look at sheep entrails, the flight of birds or the Magic 8-Ball, or you can put some stuff into an equation and hit a button. Extispicy is for the Sunday morning talk shows, but if you're actually crunching numbers, there ought to be some sort of interval within which I, as a lay reader, can tell whether missing by a fraction of 1 percent makes you a tyro or a pretty good "expert."

For the second time in a week, I'm complaining about a procedure I don't know, but having survived a couple of fairly scary classes in which baby whales were sacrificed to the gods of multiple regression, I don't think it's an unfair question. How does the forecast that "economists" offer to Thomson Reuters come about, how can I judge the relationship between the prediction and the result, and if the gap is alarming, should I blame the economy or the economists?

I will point out further that the prediction/reality gap in the statistics of unemployment claims isn't just a parlor game before we bring out the gin. At some news outlets, routine economic stats that used to be categorized as "business" stories are now "politics" stories. (The curious reader might want to hazard a guess at the point in early 2009 where this phenomenon occurred.) It's hard to wage a campaign against stupidity when media reporting itself makes "stupid" the default option.

Thus ordered: AP economy ledes will henceforth be stripped of adverbs relating performance to predictions. That relationship may be set out in subsequent grafs only if the reporter appears capable of explaining how it is derived and the rough confidence interval in which it operates. That means the horse likes mud.

* On the sensible grounds that if you don't expect to die, you aren't paying attention. Now that I have grown old and descriptivist, I no longer insist** that my obit say "died expectedly." I will settle for "died unsurprisingly but was really annoyed at the timing of it."
** Though Language Czarina still has the list of people who are to be whacked upside the head with a stick if they are assigned to write the said obit.**** Do not be misled by her classroom evals. She will hurt you.
*** One good reason for opposing the split-verb superstition is that putting the adverb between the auxiliary and the main verb is often a good way to reduce this sort of ambiguity. Imagine what might happen if we taught students to diagram sentences, rather than looking rules up in journalism textbooks. Just make it "rose unexpectedly."
**** Nobody out there in readerland, as far as I know.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Near as I can tell -- having put about as much effort into it as you have -- the "economists forecast" numbers are generated by asking a (self-selected?) group of economists to make predictions about the week's upcoming economic statistics. (Both Reuters and Dow Jones do this.) At this point, the actual methodology hardly matters, since each economist included in the "consensus" will have used different methods to come up with their guess (probably ranging from SWAG to sophisticated macro models) all with different error bounds. So reporting on these predictions should go in the absolutely verboten category.

You can find the original Reuters stories on these things by searching for "Bangalore Polling Unit", which is credited with doing the leg work. I've not been able to find any documentation of their methodology.

1:53 AM, May 22, 2010  
Blogger John Cowan said...

"Unexpectedly died" is a cliche, but obviously the viewpoint taken is that of the bystanders, not the deceased. Corpses don't have a point of view.

2:01 AM, May 22, 2010  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I agree with John Cowan about "unexpectedly died" - it's clearly shorthand for "he died and we didn't him to".

But I personally think that "unexpectedly" should remain in the stories you're talking about. Only it should be followed by "indicating (once again) that the experts actually have no idea what will happen next, so why do we listen to them?"

9:50 AM, May 22, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The willingness to let the bookies set the agenda is a learned behavior based on reporting corporate results that may or may not meet the predictions of analysts from Wall Street, who may or may not know what they're talking about.

Reporters -- and the stock markets in the U.S. -- have been credulous about analysts' reports for years, and the bookmaking on economic statistics is more of the same.

Barbara Phillips Long

12:59 AM, May 23, 2010  
Anonymous M.C. said...

In business stories about earnings performance, reporting whether the earnings-per-share number matched or missed has become standard, part of the game. Companies can make money but still have their stock sold off for missing a number. You can argue that as an investor it may be useful to see this sort of incremental performance measured. But it's also true that the watch the bookies element has become part of the story.

2:56 PM, May 25, 2010  

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