Reading The News With Our Math Lenses On

DESPITE talk of the ascendancy of multimedia and of the decline of print media, I think the rational tendencies that newspapers foster will survive and that in some form or other newspapers will remain our primary means of considered public discourse. As such they should enhance our role as citizens and not reduce it to that of mere consumers and voyeurs.

In addition to placing increased emphasis on analysis, background, and features, there is another, relatively unappreciated way in which newspapers can better fulfill this responsibility: by knowledgeably reflecting the increasing mathematical complexity of our society - its many quantitative, probabilistic, and dynamic facets.

The thesis perhaps needs a bit of elaboration. Pulitzer, after all, barely fits into the same sentence as Pythagoras. Newspapers deal with the changing details of everyday life, whereas mathematics is a timeless discipline concerned with abstract truth. Newspapers deal with mess and contingency and crime, mathematics with symmetry and necessity and the sublime. The newspaper reader is everyman, the mathematician an elitist. Furthermore, because of the mind-numbing way in which mathematics is generally taught, many people fail to appreciate its wide applicability.

It's time to let the secret out, however. Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is invaluable nevertheless.

Considerations of probability enhance articles on crime, factors that affect health, or racial and ethnic bias. Logic and self-reference help to clarify the hazards of celebrity, media spin control, and reportorial involvement in the news.

Business finance and simple arithmetic point up consumer fallacies, electoral tricks, and sports myths. Chaos and nonlinear dynamics suggest how difficult and frequently worthless economic and environmental prediction are. And mathematically pertinent notions from philosophy and psychology provide perspective on a variety of public issues.

All these ideas give us a revealing, albeit oblique, slant on the traditional Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of journalism.

Consider the somewhat trivial example of the precision of newspaper recipes that, after vague directions and approximate ingredient amounts (a cup to a cup and a half of this, several medium-sized thats, a few slices of something else), conclude happily that each serving contains exactly 761 calories, 428 milligrams of sodium, and 22.6 grams of fat. Instances of such meaningless precision occur regularly in the more "serious" sections of the paper.

The unlikely mathematical tool of incidence matrices provides society page readers with a new way to conceive of the connections among the attendees at the Garden Club gala. Again, the idea would prove useful in political reporting as well. And mathematics helps to account for the beguiling fiction that analysts actually know why the stock market behaved as it did.

On a more nitty-gritty level, claims were recently made that blacks in New York City vote along racial lines more than whites do. The evidence cited was that 95 percent of blacks voted for (black) mayor David Dinkins, whereas only 75 percent of whites voted for (white) candidate (and victor) Rudolph Giuliani. This assertion failed to take into account, however, the preference of most black voters for any Democratic candidate. Assuming that 80 percent of blacks usually vote for Democrats, and that only 50 percent of whites usually vote for Republicans, one can argue that only 15 percent of blacks voted for Democrat Dinkins based on race and that 25 percent of whites voted for Republican Giuliani based on race. There are, as usual at the politico-mathematical frontier, countless other interpretations.

Or consider the spate of news stories two years ago when a man blamed his wife's death from brain cancer on her use of a cellular telephone. The allegation of a causal connection, the lawsuit, and the ensuing media coverage led to fear, confusion, and a decline in the stock prices of the companies that make cellular phones. A little arithmetic would have shown how implausible the claim is. There are an estimated 10 million users of cellular phones in the United States and the incidence rate for brain cancer is 6 per 100,000 annually. Multiplying 10 million by 6/100,000, we determine that approximately 600 cases of brain cancer should be expected annually among users of cellular phones. So we might draw the conclusion that cellular phones have a prophylactic effect and effectively ward off brain tumors. Absurd, of course, but no more so than the original hysteria.

Samuel Johnson understood the point. James Boswell, Johnson's biographer quotes him as saying, "A thousand stories which the ignorant tell, and believe, die away at once when the computist takes them in his grip."

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