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.

4 thoughts on “Innumeracy and Reporting on the Government Shutdown

  1. I suspect you’re right about NPR & such not wanting to get slammed for “overstating” Trump’s racist request. But why not use 5.7? The average NPR listener understands decimal points.

    Of course, if I ran radio, I’d have them all announce the number like Dr. Evil; “over five BILLION dollars.”

    I’m morbidly curious what His Unholiness will do next. My guess is take what the Democrats offered on “border security,” ramp ICE cruelty up even further, and start hammering on “birthright citizenship.” That’s unconstitutional, but that hasn’t stopped these assholes before.

    Perhaps the only good news to come from all this is it’s putting off our bombing of Iran. But I fully expect that to happen in 2020 regardless. We also might have just overthrown a corrupt Venezuelan President to install an even-more corrupt dictator, but it’s not like Americans would have cared anyways.

    • Don’t get me started! It’s ridiculous. Even Wikipedia is claiming the presidency is disputed. The way our country acts is disgusting. If another country won’t let our corporations in, we do everything we can to destroy them. And our media follow along by painting them as a terrible place. When Venezuela was doing very well, we were constantly told they weren’t. Other than turning into a right-wing state, there is literally nothing it could do that would provide it with good coverage in the US. Meanwhile, authoritarian hellholes that get along with our corporations are just fine! And those corporations all funnel their profits through Ireland so they don’t have to pay any taxes. Land of the free, my ass!

      • Ah, Ireland. The Emerald Isle. Land of lore & legend, mystery & history.

        Also people lining up around the block in Dublin to apply for some shitty little 100-year-old apartment room because tax-avoiding corporations have coked up rental prices near San Fran levels. To go full Friedman, a taxi driver told me the nearby mountains are beautiful. To go another way, he hasn’t been there in 20 years because he can’t afford the time off.

        Venezuela, it just boggles my mind. Really? We’re still doing this crap, and still defending it on “helping the people” or some such? Un-friggin-believable, except it’s real.

        We need to invent an immortality serum pronto, and we need to inject it right into Amy Goodman’s toes. Thank Christ for “Democracy Now,” it’s what PBS always should have been. Nobody else who’s been around as long covered this Venezuela story with any seriousness. Goddamnit, Dr. Noam, do you always have to be right?

        “It’s not a matter of being right, you’re framing that incorrectly. It’s a question of who stands to benefit and who stands to lose. Clearly, the people of Venezuela, who could possibly be embroiled in a brutal civil war, stand to lose. The corporate-sponsored media, who stand to gain from”

        AAARGH! I’m going to put on Aimee Mann songs now because that will actually cheer me up, relatively speaking.

        • I don’t believe most Americans would go along with this. But Americans are incredibly ignorant. And our media are extremely pliant. Of course, as we now see clearly, about 40 percent of the country will believe anything they are told. And I might be too optimistic about the other 60 percent.

          Yeah, Aimee Mann cheers me up too. I’m not sure how that works!

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