We’re gearing up for the new semester here at Elon, and so I am preparing my classes for the students I will see in a week. I’m teaching writing for media again, and although it’s a writing class, I’m adding a unit on innumeracy – the inability for people to interpret numbers and statistics correctly in drawing conclusions. This is
Surprisingly common in media writing. There’s even a whole book called A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper that points out common errors the media make in thinking about/presenting numbers. It’s a combination of mathematical logic and human behavior and uses real examples from the news.
Very unfortunate in media writing. When you write with these kinds of errors, you will basically have one of three results. You might confuse your reader (the best outcome). You might irritate your reader. This is when they look at what you say, say “that doesn’t make sense at all,” and decide you are not credible. This is bad.
Something many students struggle with. Even though the bright college students I teach have usually taken quite a bit of math, including statistics, by the time I see them, they have real trouble applying what happens in math class to the information they are writing for their audiences. Sometimes it’s surprisingly basic math like knowing percentage increase and decrease are not reciprocal.
So we are going to look at ways to ask yourself questions about the information you are seeing. Do you find it easy or challenging to write about numbers?