A Plea for Statistical Numeracy

It’s the end of the holidays and the beginning of the primary season. And this is the first, but sadly not the last, posting I’ll make about examples of innumeracy among journalists.

In yesterday’s coverage, Judy was asked by Rey Suarez about the most recent Des Moines Register “Iowa Poll”, which showed Barack Obama 7 points ahead of Hillary Clinton. Since five other polls showed different results (the race too close to call), Suarez asked Woodruff: “Is this poll an outlier?”

Woodruff went on to restate how “important” this single poll result was, and peddled some stock quotes from Mark Penn and Harrison Hickman. She never showed any sense that she understood what an “outlier” was, or how this piece of information may have helped the viewers understand the status of the Iowa contest.

Tonight, in responding to Woodruff’s breathless commentary about the number of advertisements in Iowa, Gwen Ifill asked “This must be costing the candidate’s a lot of money.”

“Yes,” Woodruff replied,” but most if it is Democratic. The Democrats have spent nearly 80 million dollars in Iowa, compared to 18 million in 2004. So they are spending magnitudes and magnitudes more.”

Should we just chalk this up to hyperbole? Is it just picky for me to point out that a “magnitude” means something is ten times larger, and “magnitudes” means 100 times, 1000 times, or larger? (They are spending four times more. But I guess that is a lot less impressive that “magnitudes” more.”)

This is fodder for bar conversations among statistically inclined types, but there is an important undercurrent: to many educators, including me, “numeracy” is an important part of the educational curriculum and is too often ignored, particularly in college curricula. Numeracy (“mastery of the basic symbols and operations of arithmetic”) is a purposeful analogue to “literacy,” and, many argue, is just as critical in modern life as are reading and writing. And certainly, any political journalist who is going to make use of polling data must understand basic statistics.