# Headlines For the Mathematically Literate

Around here it’s the last day of classes for the fall semester. Yay! So how about we mark the occasion with some math humor.

Over at HuffPo, math teacher Ben Orlin contrasts actual headlines with what they would say if people were more mathematically savvy. Some examples:

Our World: Market Rebounds after Assurances from Fed Chair
Mathematically Literate World: Market Rebounds after Regression to the Mean

Our World: Firm’s Meteoric Rise Explained by Daring Strategy, Bold Leadership
Mathematically Literate World: Firm’s Meteoric Rise Explained by Good Luck, Selection Bias

Our World: Gas Prices Hit Record High (Unadjusted for Inflation)
Mathematically Literate World: Gas Prices Hit Record High (In a Vacuous, Meaningless Sense)

Heh! Go have a look at the rest. (I also like Orlin’s diagrams, so keep your eyes open for those.)

1. #1 G
California USA
December 7, 2013

Heh, excellent, and great examples. How often I see nonsense headlines and nonsense news that should be re-written if scientific literacy prevailed. The ones I notice are: a) Touting something as a “change” for better or worse, that’s statistically insignificant noise. b) Spurious correlations. c) Poor or irrelevant definitions of variables. And last but not least: d) Blatantly ridiculous assertions of causality.

2. #2 Richard Wein
December 7, 2013

Recently I’ve started paying more attention to headlines of the “highest in X years” sort. Here’s an example I just found by googling:

“Manure spills in 2013 the highest in seven years statewide”
http://www.jsonline.com/news/wisconsin/manure-spills-in-2013-the-highest-in-seven-years-statewide-b99157574z1-234701931.html

In the absence of further knowledge, the headline gives us no reason to think that there’s any trend or unusual cause involved. This could just be the sort of statistic that varies pretty randomly from year to year, and this happened to be a relatively bad year. Indeed, the body of the article supports that interpretation. The huge variation in the figures from year to year suggests they are dominated by a small number of large incidents. The number of spills was not particularly high this year, but two of those spills were particularly large, each accounting for about 30% of the total volume (of 38 spills).

I suspect that the highest-in-X-years trope is popular because it sounds significant, and sometimes it is. But quite often it creates a false sense of the significance of the news.

Perhpaps a more appropriate headline would have been: “Shit happens”.

3. #3 Jay
December 11, 2013

His Math Experts Split the Check is hilarious (be sure to read the drawing captions).

4. #4 Kevin
December 18, 2013

Our World: Market Rebounds after Assurances from Fed Chair
Mathematically Literate World: Market Rebounds after Regression to the Mean

hmmm actually.. no.. the market was worried about the easing of the purchases made by the FED, which inject cash into the market and prop up bond prices.

The regression to the mean would be the market dropping about a thousand points.. so that would be the other direction.

5. #5 Kevin
December 18, 2013

dang where is that edit button.. OK so they are saying the drop was “regression to the mean?” hmmm. . don’t buy it but at least it is in the right direction.

mass hysteria has a large effect on the market. Waiting for the FED to stop easing has everyone on edge… since June.