I'm starting a small email list for quantitatively-inclined people who follow news and politics. Basically the idea is that:
- Most channels of news information are terrible at conveying quantitative information, without which there are a lot of things you just can't understand.
- There exists a group of people that from time to time really want to understand an issue in the news, badly enough that they will go back and make sense of the coverage by generating themselves the quantitative information that was previously edited out.
- If you take a group of ~30 such people, who each once a month or so would anyway spend a couple hours trying to figure out the chinese air quality standards, or how the falling satellite compares to an ICBM, or what the actual difference between Obama and Clinton's healthcare plan is, or where the subprime money went, or whatever else -- you have an average of one "numbers note" every day or every other day.
- These people will see value added both in (i) having a group of quantitatively inclined people to run their own work by and share it with, and (ii) getting these random emails about "hey, here's what's actually going on in that news issue" shared with them so they have a better understanding of what's actually going on.
Incidentally, related to the topic, below is the draft of my column for this week about how crappy the MSM has done a job of covering the primaries.
Are you interested in being on the list? Do you have pals you think might?
Are any of the geeks on my f-list interested in this?
Here's the column he mentioned:
News Without Numbers
In the coverage of the Democratic primary, have you noticed the phrase "a complex mathematical formula" -- as in the sentence "it looks like Hillary Clinton is going to win Texas, but the delegates are allocated by a complex mathematical formula..."?
Let's unpack this statement for a moment. A "formula" is an abstract or symbolic rule that you can apply to various situations. OK, so we know they are going going to use a rule to allocate the delegates, they're not just going to do it on the fly. So far, so good.
Next step: if you're going to assign a number of delegates to one candidate, and another number of delegates to another candidate, you're using numbers, so yeah, the formula is probably going to be "mathematical". You're not going to use a "chemical formula," for example, to allocate the delegates. At the risk of stating the obvious, there is nothing that is not a "rule involving numbers" that they could possibly use to assign the delegates.
So the only thing left is "complex" -- in other words, the rule involving numbers is complicated. "Complex" doesn't tell us what the content of the rule is, it tells us a characteristic of that rule, a rule we still don't know.
Incidentally, content of the "complex" rule was typically this: in a given congressional district you get the percentage of the delegates closest to the percentage of the votes you got in that district. So assume there's four delegates. If you get 50% of the vote, you get two of the four; if you get 75% you get three of the four; and you switch from getting two to getting three at the halfway point -- 67.5% of the vote. Some congressional districts get more delegates than others because some have more Democrats in them, or more Democratic voters; and in some states it's by county or by state legislature district rather than by congressional district.
So the formula isn't that "complex" at all. In fact, bloggers one or two years out of college mostly managed to figure it out pretty well -- the Burnt Orange Report, a blog, had Texas primary delegate projections that were accurate to about three percent a week ahead of the contest, for example. They also put up a map of the districts and how many delegates there were in each so you could get a sense of how they arrived at these projections.
Meanwhile, the "best political team on TV" was projecting who would win the statewide popular vote in Texas a week later, after the voting was already over. Not only were they late, but they were talking about a number that only matters because the journalists choose to report that, instead of the number that does matter. It's surreal. And then, after reporting the wrong number, they explain that what they just said has something to do with the right number, but the relationship is "complex." They managed to talk for literally hours about stuff that didn't matter while conveying almost none of the information that did matter. And a week earlier, a kid two years out of college had showed them up.
I don't believe that CNN's team of experts are literally unable to make sense of the process. It's more the case that they don't bother to, because they assume we don't care -- we'd rather listen to discredited has-beens like Ralph Reed argue over who has the "momentum."
Things like a baseball have momentum. Elections have facts.
Perhaps it's the untold story of the 2008 election that typically amateur journalists communicating online have done better reporting than the most important news outlets in America. That wouldn't be new.
Think about this: do you remember the subprime mortgage scandal -- how "complex deals" turned sour? Do you have any idea what these "complex deals" were -- or how "a flavor you perceive with the sides of your tongue" relates to "the process of either selling an asset on short notice or drumming up more money to set aside as the collateral for a loan whose credit rating just got downgraded"? Doesn't that relationship seem worth reporting? Or of the billions of dollars were lost, whose billions of dollars they were, and where they went?
Or how about this one: Chinese "Blue Sky" air quality standards are 250 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter, and they try to get there 245 days a year, or about two thirds of the time. In contrast, the United States EPA standards are 150 micrograms per cubic meter, and they are not to be exceeded more than once a year. In other words, one in three days in Beijing the air is 70% percent more polluted than an American city is allowed to be one day a year. Remember the extensive New York Times piece on the topic? The 2500-word article on pollution levels never once used the word "gram", the unit which is used to measure pollution levels. That's embarrassing. Not one in two thousand five hundred words.
There are a lot of things you can't understand without numbers -- how delegates are allocated, where the subprime mortgage money went, or how Beijing's air quality compares to international standards, for example. Email me if you'd like to help me do something about this. I'm in the very initial stages of starting a "Numbers in the News" project with a couple buddies.