Tuesday, 22 January 2013

An aside from my Usual Geekery - Use of Statistics by the Media

A quick aside from my usual coding related geekery.  One thing I get a little stressed about is the way the UK media uses numbers and statistics in it's day-to-day output.  Caring about this is part of the DNA of being a geek dad as this stuff is all around us and impacts our perception of the world. 

People make decisions (or don't make decisions) based upon the statistics that are presented to them.  I think it's important that stats are presented clearly, accurately and unambiguously.

Some general examples:
  • Newspapers that use Fahrenheit when talking about hot temperatures ("phwoar it's going to be 100 degrees tomorrow" sounds hotter somehow) but Celsius when talking about cold temperatures (-5 sounds colder than 23).  Just use Celsius!
  • Using relative measures when quoting things like the probability of illness.  e.g. "Scientists have proven that eating <something> increases your chance of getting <some disease> by 100%".  Look at the detail and the absolute rate has changed from 0.05% (1 per 2000) to 0.1% (1 per 1000).  Could be significant, could not; but somehow "100%" sounds a lot worse and could mean supermarkets shelves pile up with unwanted packages of <something>.
Certain newspapers do this a lot, you know the ones I'm talking about...

Last week there was a story about horse DNA and horse meat being found in cheap beef burgers.  Part of the story was that 29% of the meat content of the burgers was found to be horse meat.  This is quite a vague statement in itself and could be interpreted by some as 29% of the burger itself was horse meat.  My interpretation is that the burger itself is only partially made up of meat with the rest being fillers and other stuff I really don't want to know about.  So, say 10% of the burger is meat, this means only 2.9% of the burger is horse meat.  Still not great (especially if you don't want to eat horse) but the missing statistic (% of burger that is meat) renders the quoted statistic (29% of the meat content is horse) meaningless.

I was driving for about 90 minutes when the story broke so heard about it over and over again on BBC 5 live.  What annoyed me even more was some of the reporters saying "29% of the burger was horse".  Grrrr.

My goat was got last Friday morning when watching BBC Newsround (kids focussed news TV programme for all you non-UK residents).  The presenter (who was all of 20) was out and about in Wales describing the snow that was falling and said how "2 inches of snow have fallen already".  I'm 38 but I was taught in metres, kg and litres; my kids won't have a clue what an inch is.  I've NEVER done this sort of thing before but I was prompted to write this email to BBC Newsround:

I just wanted to write regarding the section on the weather from your show at 7.40 this morning.  

Before I go in to this I want to stress that a)I'm not one for complaining about TV shows (this is the 1st time I've ever done it) and b)I think Newsround is ace and so does my 8 and 5 year old girls.

During the show, your presenter was out in the snow in Wales and talked about how "two inches of snow" was already laying on the ground. It may sound finicky but I don't think a programme that is designed to educate and inform our children should be using old fashioned, antiquated terms like an inch.  

I know we're a bit schizophrenic with our measurement units in this country but I'm getting on for 40 and I was taught to use kg, cm, litres and centigrade.  I know what an inch is but my children have absolutely no clue.

So this is not specifically about the use of the word inch but more about a tendency in some parts of the media to use nostalgic terms and themes to get their message across.  We should be setting our children up for success and this means using the right units and focussing on the future; learning from the past but not being constrained by it.  Hence I don't think Newsround should pay any part in this nostalgic practise.

I'm not desiring an apology or anything like that but it would be good to know whether you have editorial guidelines to cover this sort of thing and it was just a "slip" this morning.


Paul Weeks
Age 38
Grew up with John Craven and still love Newsround

So to again, to stress, it's not specifically the use of the word inch, it's how this type of obsession with antiquated measures, messy use of stats and the past could hold back the next generation.  Why is it that the inch is somehow the standard unit of measurement for snow depth???  The media does influence our children so it's incumbent on them to get this stuff right.  

Here's the response I received

Hello Paul

Thanks for writing to us.

It was a slip! We tend to use the unit that makes most sense to children. So in that case, we should have used CM, whereas, if we were talking about someone’s height, we’d probably have used feet and inches, since that’s still what most people – even children - understand. I think it’s important for us to reflect natural usage, rather than lead the way in conversion.


Deputy Editor

(I've withheld the name above deliberately).

Fair enough, they said they got it wrong.  However I think that (whether they know it or not) do have a responsibility to lead the way in this kind of thing.


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