Journalists ‘should read Thinking, Fast and Slow’

Joseph Rickerts took some notes when Nate Silver was speaking to a crowd of statisticians at Joint Statistical Meetings 2013. Joseph recorded 11 points made by Nate. A few are below but worth checking them all out.

Data requires context. Nate mentioned an article about the population of China that included the fact that China was the world’s second largest economy. Nate pointed out that while true, in the context of the article, it would have been more illuminating to quote a statistic about the per capita economic reality.

Correlation is not causation. Nate surmised that journalists are prone to fall into this trap because of their strong desire to tell the story about what they are reporting. It is just human nature to invent causes to connect the dots.

The average is still the most useful statistical tool. At first, I thought to disagree with Nate here. Journalists often write about the nonexistent average person, and who has not consulted a physician who seems to describe a treatment designed to cure some average patient. However, Nate was going after a more fundamental point here. Because they are looking for interesting stories, journalists often focus on the outliers.

Human intuition is often misleading. Nate recommended that all journalists read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

A probability forecast expresses uncertainty instead of trying to conceal it. Nate pointed out that journalists are very comfortable with the 50/50 chance or the all or nothing story, but find the 75% chance vs. 25% chance problematic. Nate’s advice was to try to tell the truth by communicating the uncertainty.

Like scientists, journalists ought to be more concerned with the truth rather than just appearances. He suggested that maybe they should abandon the legal paradigm of seeking an adversarial approach and behave more like scientists looking for the truth.

Read more here.