Epic math gaffe by Brian Williams & Mara Gay highlights great need for improved numeracy

When it comes to mindless journalistic blunders, there are brain cramps and then there are lobotomies.

Example of a brain cramp: the time in the late-1990s when, as a newspaper reporter, I referred to a high school student as “Dustin Hoffman.” He shared a first name with the famous actor, but not the last name, and my mind drifted into auto-celebrity actor mode as I tapped out my story.

The teen’s last name? I don’t remember, but I do recall his parents being peeved that I had interviewed the 17-year-old without their consent. (The story was about a teacher who had been accused of sexually assaulting another student during an overseas trip.)

To make my mistaken-attribution saga even stranger, those same parents’ upset was assuaged by what they saw as my intentional decision to shield his identity by concocting a false (and famous) last name. Apparently, they thought I was exercising some journalistic ethic in doing so. Nope, it was just a mindless blunder, of the brain-cramp variety.

Which brings me to that other type of journalistic blunder: the lobotomy.

A literal lobotomy, for those who are not familiar, is a brutal, discredited form of psychosurgery, “a neurosurgical treatment of a mental disorder that involves severing connections in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.” In layman’s terms, patients may be relieved of mental disorders, but there is a great risk that they will be left as docile, almost-vegetative souls.

A figurative lobotomy played out just last night, through a dialogue between MSNBC’s Brian Williams and Mara Gay, a New York Times editorial board member. The two astonishingly, staggeringly, mind-blowingly treated as truth a Twitter post that mangled math beyond measure—or, at least, by a roughly 650,000-to-1 ratio.

Here was the Tweet by freelance journalist Mekita Rivas:

Since deleted by the freelance journalist who posted it, here is the Tweet in all its mathematical ignominy.

In response, Williams declared, ““When I read it tonight on social media, it kind of all became clear…It’s an incredible way of putting it.” 

Incredible, indeed–as in “not to be believed.” His use of the word didn’t raise any red flags, however, as Gay echoed the word and chimed in: “It’s an incredible way of putting it. It’s true. It’s disturbing. It does suggest what we’re talking about here: there is too much money in politics.”

To quote the first words of New York Post’s Steven Nelson’s account of the debacle:  They’re a couple of on-the-airheads!

My bit of cleverness: MSNBC could stand for May Share Numbers Before Consideration.

The blame goes beyond Williams and Gay. It was not only their slip-up, but that of the entire crew, including producers and graphic design team. None of ’em recognized the abject absurdity of the tweet. (The actual amount would be about $1.53, or $999,998.47 less than was stated.)

As you may suspect, it wasn’t long before the cascade of corrections in the Twittersphere set the network straight and the instigator of the math mess deleted it, then updated her profile to state “I know, I’m bad at math.” Later, Williams’ show released this statement:

“Tonight on the air we quoted a tweet that relied on bad math. We corrected the error after the next commercial break and have removed it from later editions of tonight’s program. We apologize for the error.”

Mistakes happen, including math mistakes. But what was initially an innocent mishap by a single math-challenged individual should not have come anywhere close to being amplified by a major network like MSNBC. Theirs was a blunder of epic proportions, on an alarming level that rightfully would cause anyone to question the network’s judgment, discernment and intelligence on other stories.

The embarrassing episode underscores why there is such a desperate need for improved numeracy, or math literacy, for citizens. And it takes on exponential urgency when it comes to those stewards of story-telling in the journalism realm.

That is why I developed “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” nearly 20 years ago, with journalists as my primary audience for the first decade thereafter. Traveling throughout the United States to spread the Go Figure Gospel, I have felt a strong sense of public service with every math-challenged reporter, editor or other media professional I have trained. These are often folks who thought they were getting away from math when they got into journalism–only to realize that numbers are inextricably linked with just about any kind of story-telling.

In recent years, I have expanded the program to a diverse array of audiences, including the general public. In fact, around the same time Williams and Gay were fumbling through this epic math gaffe last night, I was at the Itasca Community Library leading a numeracy workshop. With a focus on the 2020 Election cycle, the program was called “Lies & More Lies, How it All Adds Up.”

Among the topics that I covered: the one-to-1,000 ratio between one thousand and one million (1,000 thousands) and the same one-to-1,000 relationship between one million and one billion (1,000 millions). For example—and it is one that I have used for over 20 years in my myriad writings on numeracy—one million seconds is a shade over 11 ½ days and one billion seconds is nearly 32 years.

Fittingly, I referred to the Mike Bloomberg campaign spending in the “Golympics” quiz that is a key feature of my session. Here’s the question:

Michael Bloomberg spent over $500 million in a three-month span before dropping out of the race on March 4th, the day after Super Tuesday. What proportion of his net worth does that amount to?

  1. 9%
  2. Less than 1%
  3. 2.7%

The answer is “b,” or less than 1 percent, because Bloomberg’s net worth is over $50 billion. You may want to look it up to be sure, but trust me, you can take that stat to the bank.

Want to learn more about my numeracy programs, including the Election 2020-themed “Lies, Damn Lies & Navigating the Presidential Campaign Trail” sessions, with over a dozen scheduled in the Chicago area through October? Visit www.GoFigureMakingNumbersCount.com.

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A Dangerous Duo on the Numeracy Front: ‘Too Tidy’ & ‘The Trouble With Double’

Have you heard the story about the guy who went straight to the top, without any setbacks along the way? He enjoyed one triumph after another, each conquered mountain taller than the previous peak.

Of course you didn’t hear that story. It’s obviously phony. Life is rarely so neatly navigated, so.tidy.

Neither are numbers, and to drive home the point I’ve taken the bold step to give it a name, Baron’s Theorem of Too Tidy Statistics: If a statistic sounds too tidy to be true, it’s likely hokum.

Case in point: I once heard a gentleman talking to a group about the impact of Baby Boomers on advertising patterns. Noting that the Boom spanned the years 1946 through 1964, the speaker said that the number of babies born increased each year for the entire period. In other words, there were more babies born in 1947 than in 1946, and more in 1948 than in 1947, and so on until 1964.

We all hear Boom statistics so frequently, but I had never heard that little piece of intrigue. The assertion seemed a bit “too tidy” for my tastes. It didn’t take long to see that it was quite a bit messier than portrayed. In 1948, just the third year of the Boom, the number of births dipped from the previous year.

Lest you suspect that was the only exception, six other times over the next 16 years, babies arrived in smaller quantities than the previous year. For the record, there were just fewer than 76 million people born during the 19-year period, or four million annually.

For the past 15 years, the average number of births in the United States has been about four million annually, ranging from 3.9 million to 4.1 million. Those figures approximate the Boom years, but keep in mind that the country’s population has more than doubled since the start of the Baby Boom, from 140 million at the start of 1946 to 291 million today.

A corollary to Baron’s Theorem of Too Tidy Statistics is Baron’s Rehashing of Other People’s Fine Analysis of Numerical Nincompoophood. I have also dubbed this “The Trouble With Double Tenet”: If it includes the phrase “doubles every (insert space of time here)”, then it’s usually hype or hyperbole.

To begin his book Damned Lies And Statistics, Joel Best highlights the peril of “double” references. He points to a dissertation written in 1995 by a student who stated, “Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled.”

Best retraced the stat’s steps to a 1994 publication of the Children’s Defense Fund.

“The CDF’s The State of America’s Children Yearbook–1994 does state: “The number of American children killed each year by guns has doubled since 1950.”

As Best went on, “Note the difference in the wording–the CDF claimed there were twice as many deaths in 1994 as in 1950; the article’s author reworded that claim and created a very different meaning.”

In addition to other potential problems, including whether the word “children” covers the same age range over that span, Best notes that the U.S. population grew by 73 percent from 1950 to 1994, so “we might expect all sorts of things” to increase accordingly.

The figure furnished by the student, said Best, “may be the worst-that is, the most inaccurate-social statistic ever.”

In fact, if taken literally, the number of homicides would have climbed to 8.3 billion in 1983-about double the world’s population at that time-and to more than 35 trillion at the paper’s writing in 1995.

So, be on the alert next time you encounter a claim that something is doubling every month, or every year-whether it’s the volume of dog clothing sales or the number of cellular phones in the United States.

Often, it’s simply a matter of someone making casual use of the word “every.” Instead of “every year,” maybe the overall number has doubled over the space of five or 10 years.

Go to www.google.com and type in “doubles every year” and see what happens-nearly all of the references are to technology and the Internet, and their alleged ability to double the quantity of information, data, and users annually.

Perhaps that is possible, at least in theory, in some areas of high-tech applications. But for the most part, it’s drivel. Do the math, and you’ll see just how untidy things can get.

One last note: Be leery of claims that something is the “fastest-growing” this or that. The smaller something is, the easier it is to grow. Glean the raw data behind the percentage change and see what story unfolds, and whether you even have a story.

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My Percentage / Percentage Point Primer & Plea For Apolitical Math

Sixteen years ago this summer, an editor at the newspaper where I toiled came to my desk and asked if I would be interested in writing a column that centered on numbers.

He was aware of my passion for and facility with numbers–in fact, I was in the midst of creating the Home Run Power Ratio as steroid-abetted sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were just then making an assault on Major League Baseball’s single-season home run record.

So it took me less than one-fifth of a second to accept the assignment with glee. That brief chat in the newsroom of The Courier News in Elgin was a career-altering moment.

The column, “By the Numbers,” was eventually syndicated nationally and led to the 2001 creation of a training program that I dubbed “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” and sent me throughout the country to train journalists and other communications pros on numeracy, or mathematical literacy.

Along the way, in 2002, The Christian Science Monitor provided me with a forum to discuss stuff like how many years (and months, days, hours, minutes and seconds) you are when you attain one billion seconds of life. The piece, “Numbers Figure Strongly in My Life,” was published almost precisely one-quarter of my life ago.

So whenever I see people, particularly those in positions of power and influence, wield numbers carelessly or irresponsibly, I can’t help but speak up.

This is all preamble to the letter, on the crucial distinction between percent change and percentage point change, that I sent recently to local newspapers. My writing came on the heels of Illinois State Senator Don Harmon’s “Springfield Report” to his constituents in Oak Park, and his misstatement of the 67-percent increase in the state income tax rate as being only 2 percent.

The headline in the Oak Leaves reads “Let’s stick to good old-fashioned, apolitical math.” Meanwhile, the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park & River Forest dropped the “let’s” but left everything else intact.

From what I have observed over the years, Harmon is a decent, conscientious elected official. So I’m looking forward to writing a letter of praise to him and all other state politicians when they follow through on their pledge to reduce the “temporary” state income tax increase from 5 percent to 3.75 percent.

By then, I’m confident Harmon will lead the charge in describing the reduction as a 1.25 percentage point decline and a robust 25-percent decrease.

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A First: My Numbers Cameo In GO Magazine

A few times over the years, I’ve pitched airline magazines with story ideas. Alas, none of those overtures have, um, gotten off the ground.

But I recently had the good fortune of being quoted in GO Magazine, AirTran Airways’ inflight magazine.

Some of my observations about numbers, and their interplay with we humans, formed the basis for a sidebar (“Prime Numbers”) that freelance journalist Geoff Williams wrote, accompanying his engaging main piece, “The Importance of Numbers: 5 Reasons You Will Read This Article.”

To read the entire package, you can find the main story and sidebar in GO Magazine’s online archives.

To see the sidebar as it appeared in print, click on the image that runs alongside this post.

For a sample of my numeracy writing, under my “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” training program for journalists and other professionals, you can read this piece on the Inside Edge PR website’s Resources page.

(Special thanks to Brooke Porter, GO Magazine’s managing editor, for graciously providing me with the copy of the article and granting permission for me to blog about it.)