Mainstream Media and Maths: We’re All Going to DIE!

A couple of months ago, the Telegraph published a superb piece of shoddy journalism by claiming there were only 100 cod left in the North Sea. This came from the Sunday Times’ equally misguided claim that there were 100 adult cod left. This in turn was picked up by other mainstream media outlets, no doubt triggering a run on local fish and chip shops across the UK before our favourite fish was declared extinct. DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) was quick to publish a release saying the Sunday Times was off by a staggering 21 million fish.

How on earth do respectable media companies like this get basic maths and science so wrong? Worse, why does this seem to be a systemic issue throughout all of media. Why do journalists struggle with the most basic understanding of numbers?

This has always frustrated me but after recently reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, it became very apparent that this incompetence with mathematics had effects that stretched far beyond frustrating the reader. Much of the damage lies in the misunderstanding or underappreciation of the underlying statistics.

Yet a brief look at the history of statistics reveals it wasn’t always like this. Continue reading “Mainstream Media and Maths: We’re All Going to DIE!”

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