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2006-03-23

You must be smarter than this lump of inanimate electronics to play statistician when you're a journalist

I have a feeling I won't be the only Ozblogger mocking a Crikey! journalist for truly shocking innumeracy, but I might just be the earliest: what's wrong with the table below, which was appended to a Crikey! article entitled "Putting the Aussie medal whitewash in context" ?

Scroll down and look at Michael Newhouse's table below, on which he possibly spent lots of work: doesn't one figure just jump out at you?

Country Total
medals
won
GDP
($million)
GDP to
medal
ratio
($million)
Population
(million)
Population
to medal
ratio
(people)
Australia
153
631,256 4,126 (4)
20.09
131,107 (2)
UK (aggregate) 111
2,140,898 19,287 (12)
60.44
184,144 (3)
Canada
53
979,764 18,486 (11)
32.81
619,056 (6)
India
34
691,876 20,349 (13)
1,080.26
31,772,352 (13)
South Africa 23
212,777 9,251 (8)
44.34
1,927,826 (8)
NZ 21
99,687 4,747 (6)
4.04
9,160 (1)
Malaysia 12
117,776 9,814 (9)
23.95
19,958,333 (12)
Jamaica 10
8,030 803 (1)
2.73
273,000 (5)
Nigeria 8
72,106 9,013 (7)
128.77
16,096,250 (11)
Kenya 6
15,600 2,600 (2)
33.83
5,638,333 (9)
Singapore 6
106,818 17,803 (10)
4.43
738,333 (7)
Cyprus 4
15,418 3,854 (3)
0.78
195,000 (4)
Ghana 2
8,620 4,310 (5)
21.03
10,515,000 (10)

Yep. Wouldn't you, if one figure in the per capita column on a table like this was two whole orders of magnitude lower than the nearby country with a very similiar standard of living - wouldn't you maybe, perhaps, just possibly double-check it?

And nobody on editorial thought it was even a little bit odd, either?

For shame, Michael Newhouse. NZ would have had to win a jawdropping 442 medals to make that per capita rate (the accurate figure is 192,301 Kiwis per medal). I spent a few minutes trying to reconstruct how you could possibly have misconfigured your quotient to get that result, and couldn't get on at all. A simple double-check would probably have caught your error if all you did was miskey the digits. Tch.

Crikey! has made some points I am fully in agreement with regarding the insulting disregard for athletes from other nations shown by the Games commentary over the last weeks. But accepting a way-out figure like the above just because it confirms a preexisting prejudice is very bad journalism. Nevermind, as every maths teacher Newhouse ever had is lining up outside the Crikey! establishment, thwapping rulers patiently against their side-seams, I'm sure he will learn his lesson this time.

8 comments:

Angus said...

You know what's really goofy about that chart? The juxtaposition of SA and NZ. Same number of medals, pretty much. ten-to-one ratio in population, pretty much. The math is all right there, on the next line up.

tigtog said...

I thought of you when I noted it! Coming up with a screwy calculation can happen to anybody, but basic numeracy should be able to show you that the number is out of kilter. How could nobody at all catch it? Are general numeracy skills really that poor?

For a political/culture commentary newsletter that goes out to hundreds of people in parliaments/public service departments/pundit pits and aims to influence public discourse as Crikey! does, not double and triple checking any figures that get published is just nuts, even on what is essentially a fluff piece for them.

I don't think Crikey!'s resident psephologist has to worry about Newhouse taking his job. If they ever advertise for a new one, ya wanna move to the other side of the world?

morgan said...

It's not only the maths, IMHO. Conceptually, just doing this buys into the whole "ra ra" jingoism of the event. Not that Australia is, by any stretch of the imagination, unique in doing that.

Even if you have to, just what does a comparitive ranking on GDP mean except that some countries have better resources for frivolous things like sport?

Mentis Fugit said...

Uh, he didn't even use a spreadsheet? Sheesh, I know we punch above our weight, but those figures would be like Mister Puniverse KO-ing Mike Tyson in the first round.

You know what galls? The Poms beat us.

Mentis Fugit said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mentis Fugit said...

Um, no they didn't... that figure's wrong too... hang on...

The UK population to medal ratio should be 544,505. The other numbers are right though.

(But why UK aggregate? Why not England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland separately?)

tigtog said...

I had a hunch that some of his other figures might be wrong too, but they didn't jump out at me quite so obviously. The innumeracy gets even more pitiful.

As to why he did the UK as an aggregate, I expect it's because that's how the sources for his GDP and population figures did it.

GDP – 2004 World Bank figures
Population – CIA World Fact Book

tigtog said...

Oh, I've just worked out how he screwed up the NZ per capita calculation: he did 4,040,000/21 and then divided by 21 again. And even then he didn't round up his last digit properly - the answer should have been 9161.

So, no concept of orders of magnitude, and doesn't get how to round things up. Sweet.

Also, although Crikey! normally acknowledges cock-ups and gleefully points out when others cock up, there was no correction notice in today's newsletter. Surely I can't have been the only subscriber that noticed the clanger and wrote in (if that's the case the general innumeracy must be even worse than I feared).