Innumeracy and Reporting on the Government Shutdown

Innumeracy and Reporting on the Government ShutdownI know this is trivial, but the way the media report on the cost of Donald Trump’s wall drives me crazy. He has asked for $5.7 billion. But many outlets don’t like reporting $5.7 and instead report numbers that are mathematically wrong.

The Absurdity of This Wall Request

First, let’s consider the absurdity of Trump’s request. The amount he is asking for appears to be meaningless. He first asked for $5 billion and then increased it to $5.7. There is no documentation on how this money will be used. The only thing we know is that it will supposedly pay for perhaps 200 miles of border wall. And that’s interesting because there are roughly 1,000 miles of border without wall.

This is similar to the problem of compressing a balloon with your hands. When you push one part of it in another part pops out. We already have border walls in the areas where it is easiest for people to cross. Closing 20 percent of the border will inconvenience those forced to cross the un-walled areas but won’t significantly reduce the crossings.

I understand that this is supposed to be the first part. But after two years he is only now getting around to doing 20 percent of the wall? Even if he wins re-election in 2020, this wall will never come close to being finished.

Rounding Errors

But what really bugs me are headlines like this from Fox News, Here’s What $5 Billion in Border Wall Funding Would Buy. I have a problem with that.

When has it ever been okay to simply truncate numbers like this? If I owed you $5.70, would you consider my debt paid-off if I gave you $5.00? I don’t think so. (Admittedly, I’m such a kind and charming fellow that you probably wouldn’t require me to pay anything back!) So why aren’t news organizations rounding? Why haven’t I seen any headlines like, “Here’s What $6 Billion in Border Wall Funding Would Buy”?

That’s what we would expect. You know, because if you are going to pick a one-digit number, your options are 5 and 6. And 5.7 is a lot closer to 6 than to 5. That’s obvious, right?

And I wonder if this request for $5.7 billion wouldn’t be reported as “$6 billion” if it were a Democrat asking for it. I wonder if the media outlets aren’t worried that they would cause a ruckus if they reported “$6 billion.” I can well imagine National Review publishing an article about how the liberal media was inflating the amount of money Trump was asking for. Sure, it doesn’t look like much, but it’s actually $300 million!

More Than and Less Than

I also see a lot of reporting like NPR, “President Trump is sticking by his demand for more than $5 billion of wall funding.” Now that is technically true but misleading.

Remember the commercials for Rubik’s Cube? “Over 3 billion combinations but just one solution!” That was true. It has 43 quintillion combinations. That’s 14 billion times as many as 3 billion.

I realize that the error with the wall isn’t that big. But this is a case where you say that it is “less than $6 billion” and not “more than $5 billion.” The idea here is to give people are rough, but accurate idea of the number. “More than $5 billion” implies $5.2 or $5.3 billion. “Less than $6 billion” implies $5.8 or $5.7. And “Slightly less than $6 billion” implies $5.9 billion. This is not hard!

Beyond Innumeracy

But for those who don’t want to mess with math, there is an easy solution: just say “$5.7 billion.” Those two extra characters are not going to destroy the printing (or website hosting) budgets of America’s news outlets.

I’m glad I got that off my chest. Now we can go back to the important business of debating whether undocumented immigrants commit more crime than native born Americans.