Friday, November 30, 2012

What they conceal is vital - I

I don't read the newspaper and I am not a mathematician.  John Allen Paulos is a mathematician and reads plenty of newspapers so he is ideally suited to write A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His general reaction  can be summed up by a quote by John Lennon that he gives at the beginning of the book: "I read the news today. Oh boy."(Though he is  not as dismissive as Jim Hacker.)

But he admits that newspapers are still much better than T.V. news which are much more superficial. (An instance of bias in T.V. news that I remember is that if I had watched  only NDTV, I would never have known about the massive floods in Pakistan a couple of years ago which was the main news in the international channels. But I would have known about the fashion show in Delhi 'that everyone is talking about'.)

Apart from reviewing some of the mathematical errors that colour news reports, some psychological factors like availability and anchoring that affect the reportage are also discussed. Paulos cautions against believing the results of polls since those results can easily be skewed by the questions that are asked as demonstrated by Humphrey Appleby in an episode of 'Yes Prime Minister'. He also mentions some advertising shenanigans like giving erroneous graphs and figures. ( How would you like some 'Splenda'?)

There are many advertisements for superficial products like face creams, hair gels, fashion accessories, etc. with dazzling and irrelevant visuals and dialogues that exaggerate the attributes of the products.Then there are the fashion pages. Paolos comments wryly about clothes that seem unwearable by anyone but a model - 'Always risible are the claims of the "top designers" that these glitzy, outlandish concoctions are for the busy working woman.' 'These glitzy ads featuring glamorous models gushing over diamond jewellery and mouthing obviously untrue bromides like 'It doesn't matter where you are born' remind me of what Bassanio said before choosing the lead casket in The Merchant of Venice:
So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars;
Who, inward search'd, have livers white as milk;
And these assume but valour's excrement
To render them redoubted! Look on beauty,
And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight;
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind,
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.
Non-linear systems are very sensitive to initial conditions, often called the Butterfly effect. Sociological phenomena are non-linear phenomena with many interacting variables that have positive and negative feedback loops and are hazardous to predict. Paulos writes:
You should observe that the accuracy of social forecasts and predictions is vastly greater if the predictions are short-term rather than long-term; if they deal with simple rather than complex phenomena; with pairs of closely associated variables rather than many subtly interacting ones; if they're hazy anticipations rather than precise assertions; and if they are not colored by the participants' intentions. Note how few political and economic predictions meet the conditions of these "ifs" - those are the ones to take seriously.
In a long-term study Phillip Tetlock found that the confident predictions made by charismatic experts are often false. He describes his study in this talk. Another relevant talk is by Nassim Nicholas Taleb about Black Swan events.

PS: There is a BBC program that investigates the numbers in the news.

PPS: The 11 Ways That Consumers Are Hopeless at Math

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