Penguins and data

Newspapers are awash in facts. No paper worth its ink serves up the "news" without the spice of statistics.

But the gobs of information that wash over us daily do not translate into knowledge. Clear thinking is the leaven we must bring to data so that meaning transforms clusters of facts. One of the central roles of daily newspapers is to aid clear thinking.

Two data-laden stories splashed across front pages recently. The first was about how enrollment of women in college outnumbers that of men. The United States Department of Education predicts that by 2007 there will be 9.2 million women and only 6.9 million men enrolled in higher education.

The second story cited US Department of Justice figures that 1 out of 5 African-American men would spend time in jail or prison at some point in his life.

What brings clear thinking to such complex stories as these, stories that touch such a deep vein in the human drama? Continuous sifting and reporting on the facts, certainly. Plus a realization that the stuff of newspapers is personal anecdotes of lives touched and transformed. Such coverage leads to greater understanding.

Global warming is another story much in the news. It will be front and center for a long time. No one article, no one book, will do it justice. We need to know as much as we can about what is causing global warming from as many informed points of view as possible. Our ignorance and skepticism on the subject must thaw.

In today's Ideas section, Colin Woodard (see article at right) presents data and firsthand accounts about the melting of Antarctica's glaciers and ice sheets. The findings are sobering.

Penguins, in their comical weather-proof tuxedos, are just the right example to help sift data about an issue as complex and consequential as global warming.

The range of one type of warm-water penguin is expanding in the frigid waters of Antarctica while that of a colder-water penguin is contracting. By such behavior, it is clear that penguins are aware something major is going on in the environment. "Scientists arriving after a year's absence are surprised to find new beaches, outcroppings, even islands that had been hidden for thousands of years under the ice," Mr. Woodard writes.

Measuring changes in glaciers covering thousands of square miles is a story we will read more than once in coming years. The findings will shape national and international policies.

Collecting data about penguins is one way to bring about clear thinking on global warming.

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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