We know nothing because we read newspapers

Here are some articles to remember when reading the mainstream media’s frequent self-congratulations, their mourning as they lose influence, and disparagement of new media reporting.

  1. The Vitality of Mythical Numbers“, Max Singer, Public Interest, Spring, 1971
  2. The (Continued) Vitality of Mythical Numbers“, Peter Reuter,Public Interest, Spring 1984
  3. The (Ongoing) Vitality of Mythical Numbers – Does ID theft really cost $48 billion a year?“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 26 June 2006
  4. More Mythical Numbers – The GAO debunks the official human-trafficking estimates“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 16 August 2006
  5. Other articles about these things
  6. For more information and Afterword


While mythical numbers will always circulate at warp speed, on the Internet the corrections often circulate almost as fast — unlike the mainstream media who often ignore their errors (unless forced to acknowledge them by the growing new media).

(1)  The Vitality of Mythical Numbers“, Max Singer, Public Interest, Spring, 1971 — Excerpt:

Along the same lines, this exercise is another reminder that even responsible officials, responsible newspapers, and responsible research groups pick up and pass on as gospel numbers that have no real basis in fact. We are reminded by this experience that because an estimate has been used widely by a variety of people who should know what they are talking about, one cannot assume that the estimate is even approximately correct.

… The main point of this article may well be to illustrate how far one can go in bounding a problem by taking numbers seriously, seeing what they imply, checking various implications against each other and against general knowledge (such as the number of persons or households in the city). Small efforts in this direction can go a long way to help ordinary people and responsible officials to cope with experts of various kinds.

(2)   The (Continued) Vitality of Mythical Numbers“, Peter Reuter,Public Interest, Spring 1984 — Excerpt:

No doubt there have always been mythical numbers in the world, numbers that satisfy some deep-seated urge to be able to fix the size of the “enemy,” internal or external. Greek citizens may really have believed that Xerxes had an army of one million when he invaded their country, even if modern scholarship has shown that this would have been far beyond his logistical capacity. But it is surely not too much to ask that the myth-making be kept an activity of the informal sector and that the government stick to providing estimates only when it has some reasonable basis and need for doing so.

Why are numbers like estimates of the heroin addict population allowed to circulate without criticism? I think at least 3 factors help explain this phenomenon.

First, there is no constituency for keeping the numbers accurate, while there is a large constituency for keeping them high. The broad consensus that the drug traffic is evil simply exacerbates the problem, even when people disagree on the best approach for overcoming that evil. …

The second factor explaining the wide circulation of these estimates is the lack of any systematic scholarly interest in the whole issue. …

The third factor is the most fundamental. The numbers have almost no policy consequence. It is certainly hard to identify any policy measure that rests on the estimate that the marijuana market generates $20 billion rather than $7 billion. The size of the government’s expenditures on drug treatment or law enforcement is certainly not driven by such numbers. Nowhere is there evidence that calculations are made of the marginal return from investing additional government resources on drug problems, in terms of the effect of expenditures on the scale of drug market incomes.

… This may be taken as further evidence for the proposition that the quality of official data is largely a function of its importance to those who use it. The actual size of the heroin addict population and of drug market incomes is simply not important either to the agencies that prepare the estimates or to any other organized group. Numbers without purpose are numbers without quality.

(3)  The (Ongoing) Vitality of Mythical Numbers – Does ID theft really cost $48 billion a year?“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 26 June 2006 — Excerpt:

Reporters have so much faith in the pure power of numbers that many will inject into a piece any ones available as long as they 1) are big; 2) come from a seemingly authoritative source; and 3) don’t contradict the point the reporter is trying to make.

The magic number for journalists covering the identity theft beat has been $48 billion—the estimated annual losses suffered by identity theft victims—which carries the Federal Trade Commission’s imprimatur. Since its arrival in 2003, the number has appeared in hundreds of news stories …

The FTC figure is based on telephone interviews with about 4,000 people in which subjects were asked about their ID theft losses in the last year, and these findings were extrapolated to the nation at large. Shouting “bunk” this week is Dean Foust, whose July 3 Business Week piece (“ID Theft: More Hype Than Harm”) argues that the figure is almost certainly wrong.

(4)  More Mythical Numbers – The GAO debunks the official human-trafficking estimates“, Jack Shafer, Slate, 16 August 2006 — Excerpt:

Reason magazine’s blog, Hit & Run, calls our attention today to a new Government Accountability Office study that casts doubt on official U.S. government estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year.

Scores of news organizations have accepted the 800,000 estimate as credible in their reporting of human trafficking in recent years. … But government estimates must always be approached with suspicion …

The “800,000 annual victims” estimate is a classic of the genre. The GAO report declares the government’s numbers all but worthless …

Although news organizations have feasted on the bogus estimates for years, few are helping themselves to the GAO findings. According to Nexis, both the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse moved stories about it on Aug. 14, but I can find no American newspaper that published them. Newsday also gave the study a fair hearing in an Aug. 15 story. The GAO debunking has been so underplayed that the 800,000 estimate may survive on its own inertia.

(5)  Other articles about the topics discussed here

I recommend reading:

  • Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, John Allen Paulos (1988)
  • Consider a Spherical Cow: A Course in Environmental Problem Solving, John Hart (1988)
  • News and Culture of Lying, Paul H. Weaver (1994)

(6a)  For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Click here to see all articles in the “Information and Disinformation” category.

Some posts about the media:

About the mainstream media

  1. A time-saving tip when reading the daily news, 2 Januaary 2008
  2. The media discover info ops, with outrage!, 22 April 2008
  3. Only our amnesia makes reading the newspapers bearable, 30 April 2008
  4. The myth of media pessimism about the economy, 13 June 2008
  5. “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
  6. “The Death of Deep Throat and the Crisis of Journalism”, 23 December 2008
  7. The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 18 February 2009 — About sea ice
  8. The media rolls over and plays dead for Obama, as it does for all new Presidents, 19 February 2009
  9. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
  10. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
  11. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
  12. Are we blind, or just incurious about important news?, 6 July 2009
  13. We know nothing because we read newspapers, 12 October 2009 — About mythical numbers
  14. Must the old media die for the new media to flourish?, 29 October 2009
  15. Clay Shirky is brilliant and American – hence often delusionally flattering, 24 November 2009
  16. Journalists, relying on anonymous government sources, attack anonymous bloggers who correct journalists’ errors, 25 July 2010
  17. Exaggerations and false predictions are good; truth is bad, 10 August 2010 — About peak oil research


12 thoughts on “We know nothing because we read newspapers”

  1. I strongly second “Consider a spherical cow”. The ability to Back-of-the-envelope estimate into the right ballpark is very useful.

    Its good just for fun to do such things. EG, “What is the CO2 output of ‘Seti@home’?”, etc etc etc.

  2. Another angle to this problem concerns the general level of mathematical and scientific illiteracy among journalists, many of whom have little or no knowledge of these critical fields of knowledge. Leaving aside the many problems of the MSM business model (noted many times on this website), and their dismissal of new media reporters and writing, there is another problem. How can a traditional J-school program adequately prepare its graduates for covering the modern world, when so many of them are ignorant of the underlying technological, mathematical, and scientific principles governing our daily lives? As it happens, I know a few journalists, and have also seen the curriculum of top-ranked graduate J-school here in Chicago. This particular program attracts mostly people with U/G degrees in English, journalism, communications, and other liberal arts fields – and very few applicants with backgrounds in science, engineering and technology. The pre-requisites are similarly slanted towards liberal arts, and do not require preparation or expertise in a field apart from journalism itself.

    My “sample” is far from scientific, but I am willing to bet this pattern is repeated elsewhere within the field. Some reporters do an admirable job of learning science, hi-tech or business reporting on the job, but most do not. Thus, we have reporters who lack an elementary knowledge of statistics trying to cover stories using survey data or polling results, or trying to make sense of budget and deficit data without understanding how large a trillion is. In short, journalists, like professors or physicians, need subject-area expertise in addition to std. J-school subjects, but they are not getting it. That is one reason cutting-edge internet sites and new media are creaming them; they refuse to close the knowledge gap that has opened between they and their readers. Journalists have been told, or have told themselves – for years – that they are smarter, faster, better-prepared and more on the ball than their readers are; the reality is quite the opposite in many cases.

    If they were smart about it, the owners/operators of raditional MSM outlets would be following new media successes around like the Japanese once did to then state of the art American manufacturers and automakers, cribbing like mad – trying to see what made them successful. But, from my vantage point, that does not seem to be happening. Instead, the MSM seem to be doing their best either to ignore or ridicule the new media, in the probably vain hope that it will strengthen their position. Only now, the “new kids on the block” aren’t so new anymore, and thet don’t seem to be going anywhere. IMO, the old-line MSM – especially the financially-distressed major newspapers and news weeklies – are a sure bet to go, hat in hand, to Washington to ask for a bailout. Count on it.

    One last note: “Innumeracy,” by Author/mathematician John Allen Paulos, was published in 1988, but it is still as relevent as ever.
    Fabius Maximus replies: All great points; thank you for posting! I agree that “Innumeracy” (listed in section 5) is a great book, essential reading for anyone seeking to understand America’s broken OODA loop.

  3. Re, #3, meaning the BBC’s previous years of yelling that we are all doomed if something isn’t done NOW…

  4. As David Simon has shown with detailed statistics and specific budget numbers, this problems goes back roughly two decades to the time when the parent companies of newspapers started slashing the number reporters and editors and shutting down news divisions and overseas news bureaus. David Simon’s testimony before Congress on the collapse of the newspaper industry:

    “When newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, their industry was one of the most profitable yet discovered by Wall Street money. We know now–because bankruptcy has opened the books–that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters in an era when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. In the years before the Internet deluge, the men and women who might have made the Sun a more essential vehicle for news and commentary–something so strong that it might have charged for its product online–they were being ushered out the door so that Wall Street could command short-term profits in the extreme.

    “Such short-sighted arrogance rivals that of Detroit in the 1970s, when automakers–confident that American consumers were mere captives–offered up Chevy Vegas, and Pacers and Gremlins without the slightest worry that mediocrity would be challenged by better-made cars from Germany or Japan.

    “In short, my industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place.”

    The result of massive staff cuts at newspapers and shutting down whole news divisions is that many fewer reporters must now cover the same amount of news than 20 years ago. This means that reporters today have little time to do more than transcribe press releases by government officials. Neither the time nor the manpower exist in current news organizations to do investigative reporting on major issues like the war in Afghanistan or the economic bailout.

    This explains why today’s newspapers and TV news outlets provide so little sensible analysis of today’s news, why they seldom do more than act as an echo chamber for corporate and government press releases, and why today’s newspapers and TV news outlets never catch onto big stories like the subprime meltdown before they break wide open with giant scandals and bankruptcies. If you want to know where today’s Woodward and Bernstein are, the answer is that they’re working in a pizza parlor after having been laid off from the Washington Post because the newspaper cut more staff. And instead of breaking today’s Watergate scandal on the front page, they’re delivering pepperonis with anchovies.

  5. Re #2, one could make a corresponding charge concerning teachers who were “Education” majors, instead of having a firm grasp of a subject area such as history or math. Is that why public education in the U.S. is for the most part abominable (even through we spend more on education than most other countries in the world)?

  6. > Another angle to this problem concerns the general level of mathematical and scientific illiteracy among journalists, many of whom have little or no knowledge of these critical fields of knowledge.

    Journalists don’t see themselves as experts in the fields they cover. They see themselves as writers reporting on the experts or people with power. So if they report a falsehood stated by an expert they don’t see it as their problem.

    Of course this leaves them wide open to exploitation. But they do have a point. The idea that journalists should be the gatekeepers of truth of every subject reported on in the society is both undesirable and unworkable in practice.

    The real problem was that with a limited bandwidth they chose to over-represent the opinions of the powerful.

    The collapse in the importance of controlling the mass media hasn’t been fully realized yet. When it is, you are likely to see a lot of calls to “improve” the quality of the internet. Hopefully it will be too late.

  7. Greenwald: "Dog-training the press corps - Journalists who heap the most lavish praise on the White House are rewarded with the most valuable treats"

    Dog-training the press corps“, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 30 April 2012 — “Journalists who heap the most lavish praise on the White House are rewarded with the most valuable treats” Conclusion:

    When I first began writing about politics, I mistakenly thought that the bias of the Bush-worshipping establishment media was a pro-GOP bias. It isn’t (and it’s obviously not a “liberal bias”). That’s not how they function. They aren’t nearly so substantive as to be driven by any sort of belief or ideology or anything like that. Their religion is the worship of political power and authority (or, as Jay Rosen says, their religion is the Church of the Savvy). Royal court courtiers have long competed with one another to curry favor with the King and his minions in exchange for official favor, and this is just that dynamic. Political power is what can give them their treats — their “exclusive” interviews and getting tapped on their grateful heads to get secret documents and invited to White House functions and being allowed into the sacred Situation Room– so it’s what they revere and serve.

    There are many words for this behavior. “Adversarial,” “independent,” and “watchdog” are, manifestly, not among them. But it produces many personal rewards for them. It’s what David Halberstam meant when he spoke to Columbia Journalism School students less than a year before his death in 2007 and said: “By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are.” He added: “One of the things I learned, the easiest of lessons, was that the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be. (So, if you seek popularity, this is probably not the profession for you.).” One could similarly say: the more the White House chooses you for all sorts of rewards, invitations, access and favors, and the more praise it lavishes on you, the less of a journalist and the more of a state propagandist you are.

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