Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Can I trust what I read in papers?

I am almost done with the book "How long is a piece of string" by Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham. However, the final chapter is so appealing that I zoomed head in to immerse myself in the magical word of mathematics.
Though sharing of the key points put forth by the authors, I hope to have also rubbed off some zest for maths on you. So much so that you would also pick up this wonderful book and read.
Maths is Magic
The final chapter is about magic. This is the magic of the spin doctor, and his props are numbers.
Spin doctors help all sorts of people to manipulate the truth, but most often they are associated with politicians. Recall what Mark Twain has once said "There are lies, damned lies and statistics."
The aim of such spin is usually to make information sound better than it actually is. Numbers play a crucial role in this, taking advantage of the public's general discomfort with maths and their consequent reluctance to challenge the figures. It turns out, too, that numbers can be surprisingly helpful as a flexible tool in helping you to say what you want to say.
Below are some of the tricks:
1) Making something out of nothing - E.g. last year's sales was $500K and this year's sale was $515K. Public relations department could easily declare an increase in revenue by 3%, which ignores inflation. As it turns out, ignoring inflation is probably one of the most common sleights of hand used by spin doctors, and passed on to the public without challenge.
2) Double-counting, or turning one into two - The book quoted the example of so-called double-counting escapade of the Labour government where the Education Secretary, then David Blunkett, announced a whopping $19 billion increase in spening on schools. Given that the total amount spent per year at the time was $38 billion, it was an impressive increase by 50%.
However, there was more than met the eye. As it turned out, it was the way the politician interpreted the figures over 3 years from 1998 to 2001. The total amount spent in 1998 was $38 billion and was to increase to $41 billion in 1999, $44.5 billion in 2000 and $47.5 billion in 2001. So the increase in 1999 was $3 billion (or $41 billion - $38 billion). As for the increase in 2000, it was with reference to Year 1998 i.e. $6.8 billion. Likewise for 2001 which worked out to be $9.5 billion. The total increase was obtained by adding up the increases each year - a whopping $19 billion. 
Sounds gibberish? You bet it is. 
3) Making something smaller and bigger at the same time. Here is another very useful prop for performing the spin doctor's magic - percentages.
First spin doctor - Last year, the price of coffee went up by only 2%. This year it has gone up by 3% - that's an increase of only 1%, which is quite reasonable given the poor crop this year.
Second spin doctor - Not at all. If it went up by 2% last year, and 3% this year, that means it has gone up by 50%.
4) Use averages to make everyone feel better - or worse. One can also pull off a lot of tricks with averages. The whole concept of what "average" means is a slippery one, bandied about by politicians with little respect for its subtleties. Just remember, average masks differences.
5) Missing the big picture.  Another ploy of a good conjuror is to make you concentrate on a small part of what is going on so that you completely miss something else. This is about graph plotting by magnifying small differences through selective presentation of figures.
6) Blind them with science. Finally, there is the mesmersing bit of chicanery that leaves the audience saying, "Wow, I have no idea how they do that!" One way to keep out prying eyes is to send out the message, "We are so clever, it's not even worth trying to understand what we do".
A standard way of doing this is to make simple things complicated, with the implication that complicated = sophisticated. The truth is, of course, that complicated often means no more than muddled thinking.
In Conclusion
A lot of maths is extremely difficult. That's what we do in the varsity. But most of the maths needed for everyday life is not. In fact, an understanding of maths can have all sorts of benefits: it can stimulate curiosity, it can answer those questions that bug us all the time, it can improve decision-making, and it can help to settle arguments.
I think this final chapter tells us that the most important role of maths in everyday life is it can help to prevent us from being conned, defrauded, misled and otherwise ripped off. There is nothing that spin doctors would like more than a generally innumerate society, so that can be fed exactly the numbers they want to feed us.
With maths, it is possible to fight back.

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