Saturday, December 18, 2010

There's one born every minute

Step right up, step right up, there's a winner every time! Hurry, hurry, hurry!

Sigh. Every now and then, journalism's legendary ineptitude with numbers rises to public attention. (As the Post noticed, complaining about the problem is a really good way to ensure a front-page visit* from it.) The ailment has a lot of causes. One is a basic lack of training; back in Your Editor's college days, for example, the option was foreign language or math.** For another, journalists tend to self-describe as "word people"; they guard the TRVTH by guarding the language, not by guarding a bunch of numbers. And there's a basic belief in there that numbers are a form of magic; since Bad People lie with numbers, anybody who knows how to manipulate numbers could be lying.

The factor at play in today's example, I think, stems from those as well as a fundamental confusion about the sorts of truth we tell. We have trouble distinguishing political communication, in which it's important to ensure a balance of voices (even stupid and malicious ones), from the communication of empirical evidence, in which there's sometimes a single right answer.

That No. 20 red ball has made its way out of the kettle 49 times, the most of any of the numbered balls. No. 20 also is the second most common number on the five white balls that are selected in each Powerball drawing as well, behind 26 and ahead of 32, 16 and 42, a Daily Herald analysis of the numbers shows.

That's not "analysis." That's "counting." When you reach into your pocket for change at the parking meter, you're not "analyzing" how many dimes and quarters you have.

As common as they are, those six balls have never appeared together in the 1,369 drawings held each Wednesday and Saturday since the modern age of Powerball began Nov. 5, 1997.

The "modern age of Powerball"? What happened -- Wally Pipp had a headache and Nate Silver started at first base that day?

While some gamblers may see that information as an edge, mathematicians and oddsmakers say it's all just luck.

“The numbers and the pingpong balls have no memory,” said Jeff Bergen, a mathematics professor at DePaul University. “So whether a given number has come up once or twice or 10 times or never, it is no more or less likely to come up today than any other number.”

Ding ding ding! News flash! Story's over! There aren't "two sides" to this story. There's one, and we've just heard it: The numbers have no memory. Period. End take, send take, next take.

Now. That means your centerpiece is basically a fib from top to bottom. Two main outcomes are possible:

1) People who don't know any better will be misled by the headline and think you have increased their chances of winning the Powerball
2) People who do know better will conclude that you don't really care whether the stuff at the top of the front page is true or not.

I'm not massively tickled by either one, and that's over and above the delight of having devoted the dominant visual element on the frontpage to, essentially, a free ad for the stupidity tax. It'd be nice if an editor had noticed this and sent the story off to play in the freeway for a while. Instead, it appears that editors up and down the line decided to make matters worse.

* Kids, if you're still wondering why this one shows up every semester, it's because it keeps showing up in professional journalism.
** Wow, that was tough.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahem... I'd just like to note that the gas station pictured is directly across the street from the Daily Herald office. So, huge effort all around...

5:34 PM, December 19, 2010  

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