Everyone gets numbers wrong, even the New York Times

Everyone gets numbers wrong, even the New York Times

My topic for today: All numbers are wrong.

Like, seriously. Whenever you see a number – in a tweet, newspaper headline, office email, technical report, textbook, anywhere – assume it is wrong. Treat it as enemy misinformation, deliberate sabotage of your understanding of the world, and disregard it.

You’re thinking, ha ha, I’m exaggerating for effect. I’m not. Seriously I am not. I mean, of course not not all numbers are literally incorrect; but it happens so very, very much more often than your intuition, that I do literally mean it is a good practice to treat all numbers as incorrect by default.

I’ve come to this position slowly, over the years, one screwup at a time. But now that I’ve really started paying attention, the mistakes are everywhere.

(If you’re wondering what this has to do with climate, stay tuned; I’ll be getting into this in later posts.)

It’s So Easy To Find ExamplesThe day I sat down to write this post, I skimmed the New York Times headlines for examples. I didn’t have to look far:

“Half a million known virus cases”, huh? During the Omicron peak, the US alone exceeded that many cases every day. Clearly they meant half a billion.

Think about this. The New York Times, in a prominent location – a headline! – used a number that was off by a factor of one thousand. One thousand. Utterly, colossally, absurdly incorrect.

How could that happen? Is their research department using a flawed methodology? Did they fall victim to a misinformation campaign? Did someone accidentally post a headline from way back in early 2020? Were they hacked?

Of course not. Obviously, it’s just a typo. No big deal. But the fact that a factor-of-1000 error is no big deal, is a big deal. It undermines the very idea that numbers mean anything. It rubs our nose in the fact that an incorrect number looks exactly like a correct number. In this case, the number is so wildly incorrect as to reveal itself on casual inspection. But most mistakes aren’t so obvious; and even this “obvious” mistake made it to the front page.

Imagine you’re in line at a restaurant buffet, and you see an employee drop a piece of meat. They pick it up from the floor, brush off the dirt, and plop it into the serving platter. Obviously you’re not going to eat it. Are you going to carefully choose a different piece of meat? Or, having seen their standard of hygiene, are you going to leave that restaurant and never come back? You wouldn’t put that food into your mouth; and you just saw a mainstream news source do the metaphorical equivalent of serving meat that had been dropped on the floor. Don’t put these facts into your mind.

Even When A Number Is Right, It’s WrongSeven-layer cake? I thought you said seven layer cakes!Mixing up “million” with “billion” isn’t even the worst part about that Covid statistic. It’s a big error, but it’s a one-off. The deeper problem is the phrase “most likely an undercount”. It is not likely an undercount, it is certainly a small fraction of the true value. The statistics the Times is citing – the statistics everyone always cites – are based on officially reported cases. If someone takes a home test instead of a lab PCR test, or if they never bother to get tested at all, or if they live in a part of the world where lab tests are unavailable, or if they have a mild case and don’t even know they’re sick – none of those infections are counted.

I couldn’t easily find an up-to-date estimate of total worldwide infections, but this article from way back in October 2020 cites a World Health Organization estimate of around 760 million. At the time, the number of reported cases was only 35 million. Or the CDC estimates that through September 2021 – i.e. before Omicron – 146 million Americans were infected. By now, well over half of the country must have had the virus. I imagine the same applies in most of the world, China (though this may be about to change) being the one large exception. “Half a billion” is completely disconnected from the actual infection count.

At least the Times specified “known” cases. Often, that distinction isn’t even mentioned. But anyone reading the headline is going to gloss over the word “known”. They’re liable to mentally compare half a billion cases with the world population of around 8 billion, and conclude that roughly one person in 16 has had Covid – when the truth is more like in two.

So saying that 500,000,000 worldwide Covid cases is most likely an undercount, is like saying “most human beings live at least seven years, possibly longer”. Technically, it’s a true statement; in practice, it anchors your mind on a number that means something so different than what you think as to basically be a lie.

Errors, Errors EverywhereThe same day, in the same skim of headlines, the Times also provided this beauty:

The body of the article includes a slightly different phrasing: “Russia and Ukraine together export more than a quarter of the world’s wheat”. In actual truth, according to the best data I could find (link, link) Russia and Ukraine together export about 6% of world wheat production – less than a quarter of the figure provided by the Times. What the Times appears to have meant is that wheat exports from these two countries are close to 30% of global wheat exports. Most wheat is consumed in the country in which it is grown, so “wheat production” and “wheat exports” are very different. Incidentally, none of these figures tell us Russia and Ukraine’s share of wheat production; that’s about 15%.

It is certainly true that the invasion of Ukraine will cause serious disruptions to wheat supply for certain countries. But the idea that the world is going to have to make do with 25% less wheat is way off. In fact, this Twitter thread suggests that there will be essentially no net shortfall in the world’s wheat supply. I don’t know whether the analysis is correct, and there are parts I don’t understand, but it’s circulating widely and I have not seen a rebuttal. One point the writer makes is that wheat markets saw trouble brewing well in advance of the actual invasion, and as a result many large producers – notably India and the United States – planted more wheat than usual this season. Again, this doesn’t mean there won’t be disruption; but it will mostly be a question of getting wheat where it’s needed, not an actual global shortfall.

The takeaway, once again, is that numbers are often misinterpreted (share of world wheat production vs. share of exports vs. exports as a fraction of production) in a way that renders them wildly incorrect.

Serious Professionals Get It Wrong All The Time
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