Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

I hate paragraphs like this:

Indeed, average one-way commuting time has steadily crept up over the course of the past five decades, and now sits at 24 minutes (although we routinely under-report the time it really takes us to get to work). About one in six workers commutes for more than 45 minutes, each way. And about 3.5 million Americans commute a whopping 90 minutes each way—the so-called “extreme commuters,” whose number has doubled since 1990, according to the Census Bureau. They collectively spend 164 billion minutes per year shuttling to and from work.

Whenever I see raw numbers rather than percentages, my bullshit-meter goes into the yellow. ‘About 3.5 million Americans’ is just above one percent of the population, or about 3 percent of the working population. It’s exteme that they’re spending 90 minutes commuting each way, but 3 percent isn’t exactly an epidemic. 

Writing is about choices. The author of this piece (whose work I actually really like) could have written that sentence as a percentage or as a raw number. She knew the percentage sounded weak, so she used the population figure. She then exacerbated this choice with that appalling sentence about how many minutes this amounts to in total.

164 billion minutes is utterly meaningless. America has 300 million people. There are 1,440 minutes in the day. If you measure anything by minutes, it sounds like it’s out of control.

The sentences ‘The average American spends 10 minutes showering every morning’ and ‘Americans spend 3 billion minutes every day standing in hot water!’ convey exactly the same information. One is framed neutrally to inform, the other is framed for scale to manipulate.

You expect this shit from NGOs (’5 trillion grains of rice are denied to poor children every year!’) because their job is to mobilize. Journalists, whose job is to inform, should know better.

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1 Comment

Filed under Journalism

One response to “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

  1. Vincent

    Makes me think of this which was really preposterous a while ago: http://xkcd.com/558/

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