Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fool you with numbers - Denyse O'Leary

Two recent items from my work at Uncommon Descent, demonstrating the need to be ungullible when listening to media stories intended to gin up public opinion:

This one:

The Goldilocks zone is real enough, but the Goldilocks number ...?

The term “Goldilocks zone” sometimes references Earth’s position, as just right for carbon-based life. The number, as it happens, is a phantom, but a powerful force in shaping opinion nonetheless.

Marvelous fun from Brooke Gladstone at Slate (May 19, 2011) about the Goldilocks number, 50,000, used in media to gin up scare stories. Here's an interesting item by the same writer on “objectivity” in journalism.

Now, as I have said for years, there isn’t really any such thing as objectivity in journalism.

One’s bias isn’t a bad thing in principle, it is simply the place one stands when covering a story. One can make allowances for it, to the extent that one recognizes it.

Hat tip: Pos-Darwinista

And this one:

Numbers don’t lie, but people do

Or anyway, they babble political correctness and call it accuracy. We looked at the “Goldilocks number” used to manipulate public opinion. In “The Marginalization of Christians continues in Canada” (May 21, 2011), journalist and author Michael Coren talks about politically correct manipulation of crowd numbers. For example, the government broadcaster, tax-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation underestimates the crowd for pro-life rallies by multiples; in the case Coren mentions, CBC underestimated by 200%. But it overestimated the Gay Pride parade in Toronto by five times the police figure:
We can only thank our publicly funded stars that the same network — joined by most others in the mainstream media — tells us every year that more than a million people attend the gay pride parade in Toronto, when the police privately inform journalists that 200,000 is closer to the mark. For a million people to be present, the crowd would have to stretch from the southern tip of Toronto to Barrie, Ont., more than 100 km north.

(See especially, Coren’s Why Catholics Are Right (McClelland & Stewart), on the bestseller list for five weeks.)
That latter point clears up a long-standing suspicion on my part: I live in downtown Toronto, which I must cross to get to Mass on the day of the parade. Toronto has about 2.5 million people1. If it were true that one million of them left whatever they were doing and went to the Gay Pride parade, there would be a huge hole in just about everything - which there never is. So I simply couldn’t believe that the figures represented factual reality, no matter who was fronting them.

What the legacy media’s figures represent is“politically correct calculus,” which is critical for understanding news stories in these times: One pro-choicer is equivalent to three pro-lifers. One Gay Pride marcher is equal to five non-marchers. And anyone who takes the risk of questioning the calculus, as free speech advocate Michael Coren has, knows that they are henceforth targeted on suspicion of “hate crime”or “causing offense.”

The good news is that to get past the numerous misrepresentations, it is not necessary to disbelieve everything we read. In Canada, a backstop solution frequently in use is to build in corrections as one reads or listens: Assume that the pro life rally is three times as large as media report and that the Gay Pride parade is one-fifth as large. You may need to adjust these corrections to fit your local legacy media, of course. Once you have arrived at the right correction figure, you are close to sufficient accuracy.

(Note: Police numbers cannot always be relied on because the police sometimes come under PC pressure too. So never ignore common-sense observations, such as: What should we observe if these figures are correct?)

Hat tip: Five Feet of Fury.

(1 City officials like to inflate the number by accidentally including outlying bedroom communities (shucks, we haven’t invented mapmaking here yet), but the one given above is correct and plausible.)

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Denyse A rich collage of material to occupy the enquiring mind -- as always.
"Uncommon Descent" -- what a great little video!
Thanks for the stimilation and education.

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