Monday, June 29, 2009

The Stratford Theory of numbers

I have this theory. It’s called the Stratford Theory of Numbers, and it goes like this: almost every number in a newspaper or magazine is wrong, because it has been misreported and/or misunderstood by the journalist.

This is because most journalists are innumerate. Baffled by statistics, they uncritically record survey results and the like without giving them the scrutiny they would to someone’s words. Even when no numbers are used in a report, they can come up with something like this, from the Sunday Star-Times a while back:
The hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic is growing and is set to become the largest-ever, the Japan Meteorological Agency said yesterday. “At its largest, the hole is expected to be around the same size or a little smaller than it was in 2000.”
So the hole was going to be the largest-ever, and slightly smaller than before. Or maybe the same. Whatever.

It’s not just local journalists. There’s a lulu, for example, in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph. Jemima Lewis writes:
The demise of French cuisine has become a favourite journalistic dish in the past decade, and it doesn't seem to be losing its flavour. Michael Steinberger, an American wine writer, has just published Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France, in which he argues that the one-time gastronomic capital of the world has lost its way.

This may be so, but it seems a bit rich coming from an American. It is, after all, American-style fast food – combined with the disappearance of the stay-at-home mother – that is eroding France's culinary heritage. (The French eat more McDonalds per capita than any nation except the Americans.)
An astonishing fact, that – except it isn’t true. Not even close.

There’s a chart here that shows density of McDonalds by country, i.e number of McDonalds restaurants per 10,000 people. (That isn’t quite the same as consumption of Big Macs, but as a proxy it’s close enough.) The US is first, naturally, with 0.433 per 10,000, followed by – ta-dah! – New Zealand with 0.369. Next come Canada (0.352), Australia (0.349) and Japan (0.282). France is a lowly 16th with 0.141.

The moral of the story is: beware of journalists bearing statistics.


homepaddock said...

There are three kinds of people - those who can count and those who can't.

There are another two kinds of people - those who do words and those who do numbers. There are a few rare ones who can do both.

Anonymous said...

You're probably right but there is no direct link between the number of restaurants and the amount of food consumed in them. We'd need specific statistics on food eaten to trump the claim in the story.