The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Mon, 2007-Dec-03, 09:34

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Political Reporting, Bogus Statistics, and the Sports Section

One of the funnier things I hear on the radio while driving is the occasional sports event. Most broadcasts are filled with silly and meaningless statistics: "This batter averages 237 against left-handed hitters when he's got two fouls in the fourth inning." It's disaggregation run wild, a romp through databases looking for the finest possible distinctions without any thought for whether or not the data that they're presenting makes even the slightest sense.

On the other hand, I've just read today's news, and I see that a similar passion for otherwise-pointless statistics continues to burgeon in political reporting. Staff members for Clinton continue to put forth evidence of her "inevitability" in the form of the oddest statistics, ones that sound something like this: "She's running ahead among left-handed red-headed men between the ages of 30 and 45 with incomes above the national average." Is this news — or is this disinformation?

The financial pages, thank goodness, stick to a few measures that really matter, statistics that everyone understands and that provide a common language. Smart businessmen use disaggregation to discover new opportunities; the ones who try to "spin" phony distinctions soon find themselves punished in the marketplace, and no financial reporter would be a willing accomplice.

So here is today's radical suggestion: move political coverage to the sports section, where bogus statistics are the norm, or move it to the financial section, where bogus statistics never stand a chance.

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