Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Headlines and Statistics

Tax day seems like an opportune time to talk about the lie of statistics. Actually, this is more the lie of newspaper headlines than statistics, but it's interrelated.

A week or so ago a small blurb in the Baltimore Sun's nearly non-existent business page proclaimed "Gas Prices up 6%". Reading the blurb, it said gas prices are predicted to be up 6% for this summer. A reader who stopped there might think that the current prices hovering around $4/gallon are going up another 6% as we hit the summer.

But further reading shows that gas prices being up 6% is referring to comparison with last summer. In fact, the price at many stations in the Baltimore area is already more than 6% over last summer's prices, which means that gas prices are actually going to go down as the summer arrives, as 6% over last year is $3.94/gallon.

Even in an inconsequential blurb like this, newspaper headline writers can't help but make a headline as dire as possible, regardless of the actual content of the story contradicting the headline.

Ah, well. This is a fine example why one should read critically. Reading critically doesn't mean disagreeing with what's written. Reading critically means thinking about what's written and whether it comports with facts. A skill set that's hard to come by and the lack of which is a cornerstone of political and media success, regardless of stripe.

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