I have a friend who is also in the science business on the outreach/educational side of things. Last night he and some other friends and I were out on the town (is that what the kids call it these days?), and he mentioned that he liked this site as it’s been while I’m on break from school. Less math. Which kind of surprised me, I didn’t realize I had been doing it. Maybe I do tend to be less rigorous when I’m not actively doing work. In either case it’s about to come to an end, as in about a week I’ll be back at school teaching and getting some research done. There will be math. (But it won’t be bad!)
Right now though I’m going to riff off a Swans on Tea link for the second day in a row, because it points out something I’ve noticed for a long time.
Finance reporting, I think is an especially egregious offense by reporters. Think about it — no matter what happens in the stock market, the reporters will have some cause ascribed to it. And they’re just making it up. Most days the stock market signal is just noise.
I have been following the various markets with a lot of interest ever since the meltdown, especially the bond market as a pretty solid gauge of how the market thinks the economy will be developing in the future. And that observation is entirely correct: market changes with no obvious single causal event will be reported as happening because of some other thing that happened to be going on at the same time. You’ll see things like “Stocks down on job loss report” just as surely as you’ll see “Stocks up despite job loss report”. Often you’ll see both on the same day. It would be much more honest to say that the job report was one factor of an untold number of others, interacting in a very complicated and unpredictable way.
Here’s one from CNN, up at the same time as I’m typing this:
“The Dow slipped and the Nasdaq gained Friday as investors sought to restart the stalled rally, but showed caution as energy prices and oil stocks slipped.”
Which seems to be a pretty dignified and knowledgeable way of saying absolutely nothing. I suspect that if you interviewed the traders on the exchange floors, none of them would give “trying to restart the rally” as a motivation for their trading patterns. It might be good for them or it might not (if they’re in a short position), but either way the market does not work in a “group selection” sort of pattern. Like biology, it’s all in the individual level*. In fact investors colluding to restart the rally would probably be illegal, as it would be a nice way of rephrasing the old pump-and-dump scam.
Whether by accident or design, the current bond market summary starts off better:
“Treasury prices rebounded Friday ahead of a week full of auctions, government purchase operations, and the Federal Reserve’s two day meeting.”
This is just a straight assertion of fact. Bonds are in fact up, and next week that list of things is in fact happening. To the extent that the sentence asserts causality it may be a bit sketchy, but as it stands it’s a lot better written than the stock market summary.
Physics this ain’t, and of course it’s not fair to look at all of life through the lens of mathematical rigor that physics requires. Nonetheless I think it’s fair to ask for some better writing in the reporting on what is after all a very mathematical endeavor.
*Or the gene level, for the Dawkins fans. I’m not informed enough to hold forth authoritatively on the gene vs. individual selection argument, but I suspect that like the Heisenberg and Schrodinger formulations of quantum mechanics, they’re rephrasings of the same underlying idea.