Headlines from a Mathematically Semi-Literate World

I Think Therefore I Am Dangerous

I was sent to the blog post "Headlines from a Mathematically Literate World" by (of all places) one of Debby Witt's link-collection posts at the NR Corner blog. I went seeking amusement; I came away merely irritated.

I like to think I'm relatively good at math, although I started getting out of my depth in "Introductory Methods of Applied Mathematics" in my junior year. I think it was the instructor's unexpected usage of the greek lowercase-xi (ξ), a scribble which I—to this day—cannot write legibly. (I was fine with everything else: alphas, mus, thetas…) Note-taking was impaired, things went downhill from there. That one little squiggle was my own personal learning impediment.

Anyway: the article, written by one Ben Orlin, purports to criticize math-impaired folks at the newspapers. Also a pet peeve of mine! So I had high hopes.

Unfortunately, the article is pretty bad. Its goal is to improve headlines (all imaginary, I think), using mathematical insight. Some hit the target, too many don't.

Let's take an easy one first, which I will screenshot:

[not actually doing the math]

In an article that attempts to speak from the holy cathedral of "mathematical literacy", this is just embarrassing. Orlin apparently wants to make the point that government expenditures may sound big in absolute terms ($50 million is a lot), but can be made to sound small if you figure out their cut of the overall budget.

Or to put it in terms that matter a bit more: if you want to eliminate a $680 billion deficit (FY2013), you would have to find and zero out about 13,600 of those $50 million "controversial programs".

Trivial. But here's an exercise for the reader: $50 million is 0.0001% of what?

OK, I'll do it for you: 0.0001% equals 10-6, aka one-millionth. So $50 million is 0.0001% of $50 x 1012, or $50 trillion dollars. That's almost 20 times bigger than actual Federal government revenue ("only" $2.8 trillion in FY2013); it's about 3 times bigger than the entire current US GDP (about $15.7 trillion in CY2012). So my headline would be:

Mathematically More Accurate World: Controversial Program Would Cost 0.0018% of Taxpayer Money

While accurate, that maintains the tendentious subtext that Orlin apparently wants to slide in: people are silly to worry about wasteful government spending if it's a sufficiently small fraction of the budget. But it's not math making that judgment: it's Orlin.

Now (to be fair) sometimes he's completely right:

[shark attack]

Good point: generally speaking, people misperceive risks, and a sensationalistic news media seldom helps. (See this story for some relative numbers on the danger from shark attack, vs. (say) wrestling with a recalcitrant vending machine. Note that the article is written by a sharkbite victim.)

But other times Orlin simply goes off the rails:

[minimum wage tendentia]

That's (again) not "mathematical literacy" speaking: it's Orlin. Apparently he likes minimum wage laws, and the only people who oppose them are "economists" with those new-fangled "models". It's easier to do that than, I suppose, than deal with an actual headline from an article by an actual economist.

Look, I'll make it easy. Here's one: "The Minimum Wage Is Cruelest to Those Who Can’t Find a Job". Key quote:

A “fair wage” is a “free wage”—that is, one that results from voluntary exchanges among workers and employers. Government should prevent fraud and violence and allow individuals to enter into mutually beneficial exchanges under a just rule of law that protects persons and property. The minimum wage violates freedom of contract and hence private property rights; it is neither moral nor effective. It is unfair to workers who can’t find a job, especially young workers in search of a better future.

Or, using Orlin's format and a reality-based headline:

Our World: President Obama Claims "No Solid Evidence" Increased Minimum Wage Costs Jobs
Economically Literate World: President Obama Wants To Make It Illegal To Hire Workers At A Wage He Dislikes, Can't Imagine Anything Bad Could Possibly Happen

Unlike Obama, I don't want to ignore the fact that there is a debate on the economic impact of minimum wage laws. See, for example, the WaPo fact checker Glenn Kessler, who (generously) awards the President merely two Pinocchios for his silly claim. (I'd especially recommend it to Orlin, who might learn that the debate doesn't just involve "models", but also a lot of empirical research.)

OK, just one more:

[please give me money]

Not much pretense to "mathematical literacy" here at all. I will rewrite:

Our World: Politician Promises to Fund Math Education
Politically Literate World: Politician Pledges to Throw More Taxpayer Money At A Failing System Of Math Education With Zero Evidence That It Will Improve Anything, And No Accountability If It Doesn't

See? It's easy.

Last Modified 2014-12-05 11:29 AM EST