Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 25, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

NUMERICAL LITERACY....Mark Kleiman nominates the following as a "list of concepts journalism students should be exposed to":

  1. Institutional culture

  2. Regression toward the mean

  3. Moral hazard

  4. Expected value (of an uncertain outcome)

  5. Present value (of a stream of gains and losses over time)

  6. Statistical control

  7. Correlation v. causation

  8. Benefit-cost analysis and willingness-to-pay

  9. Cost-effectiveness

  10. Separation of powers

  11. Mill's "harm principle"

  12. Rent-seeking

  13. Opportunity cost

  14. Cognitive dissonance

  15. Milgram experiment

Obviously we all have our favorites, and your list would probably be different from Mark's. But I will note one thing: by my count, nine out of his fifteen items are related to numerical literacy of one kind or another. That sounds about right to me.

Kevin Drum 2:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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Comments

agreed. but i wouldn't just limit this to journalism students.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on September 25, 2006 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

A little basic high-school science wouldn't suck either. Or high-school history.

It goes without saying that the smartest kids in the bunch don't usually gravitate to journalism schools.

Posted by: billjones on September 25, 2006 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

Those concepts are pretty damn sophisticated for folks who mostly just want to know the location of the nearest bar.

Posted by: Ron Byers on September 25, 2006 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

You forgot chaos in complex systems and their extreme sensitivity to initial conditions.

Posted by: gregor on September 25, 2006 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

And also the simple fact from estimation theory that in absence of any other information, the best estimate of future is a repetition of the past.


Applies so aptly to the current liars-in-chief.

Posted by: gregor on September 25, 2006 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

Need to make them understand just how scary brown people are to my dear little Al, and how he simply must believe in a big strong macho torturer -- otherwise, little Al wets the bed each night.

Posted by: Al's Mommy on September 25, 2006 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

"16. Right v. wrong. Killing babies and grave-robbing is WRONG., even if it's called 'abortion' and 'estate tax'. Report accordingly."

Posted by: American Hawk on September 25, 2006 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Add to the list -- Sunk costs

Posted by: asf on September 25, 2006 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

grammar
honesty
the rules of semantics and understanding semantics

Posted by: Carol on September 25, 2006 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

what's the difference between #8 (first part) and #9?

Posted by: Edo on September 25, 2006 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

How about, "How to Suck up to Washington liberals."

No, I guess that comes naturally.

How about these
"Just report the facts,"
"Quit copying everyone else and do your own leg work,"
"Postive gay reporting."
"The Wronginess of Bush."
"Favorite Christian Insults."
"How to write 1000 words without saying anything."
"Progressive Apologist"
"Getting the Bleeding/leading story."
"Pessimist Pro."

I guess that is really just a syllabus for classes currently being taught to journalism students.

Hey if you want them to survive the industry you gotta teach them how to play the game.

Posted by: Orwell on September 25, 2006 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

What I'd like to see is an analysis of the proportion of cable and broadcast news anchors and reporters who've actually studied journalism.

Posted by: Wonderin on September 25, 2006 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: Any good book recomendations on Numerical Literacy?

Posted by: Yahoo on September 25, 2006 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

Orwell has a point. Liberals want reporters to be educated enough to do their jobs well. Conservatives just want to hear right-wing spin.

Obviously the conservative goal is easier to achieve.

Posted by: calling all toasters on September 25, 2006 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

Cost Benefit analysis requires adding up all of the total monetized benefits of a program and subtracted the sum of total monetized costs of the program to calculate net present benefits or costs. Cost effectiveness is similar in that you calculate total costs and total benefits,but you don't neccessarily monetize all impacts. You then calculate benefits per costs such as 100 lives saved per $1 million.

Posted by: Bob LaBlog on September 25, 2006 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

They should learn about general complex systems.

They should learn that these are conceptualized as reticulated (i.e. web-like) multiple-compartment models.

They should learn that science so far has been unable to predict any of them, but that they follow certain paths.

They should learn that there are different reasons why systems can't be predicted, including: definition, modelability, fine and coarse graining, measurement of variables and verification, nonlinear computation and the n-body problem, experimental repeatability, and model verification.

They should learn that, even though precise predictions are impossible, general systems do general things: stability = regular oscillations, a system usually returns to stability after unusual perturbation, there are multiple regimes of stability, there are possibilities of new emergent properties, there are possibilities of unpredictable catastrophic change, and there is an INCREASE IN PROBABILITY of catastrophic change with additional forcing or exotic introductions (e.g. more CO2 into atmosphere.)

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on September 25, 2006 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

I would add Darwin's "natural selection" to the list.

Posted by: melior (in Austin) on September 25, 2006 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

Bob LaBlog,

thanks for providing a thoughtful answer. The difference is marginal enough that #8 ought to read:

Benefit-cost analysis, cost effectiveness and willingness-to-pay.

IMHO.

PS you forgot to mention discounting future benefits and costs by the discount rate--typically a risk-free rate or a cost-of-capital rate; for the government they'd be essentially the same.

Posted by: Edo on September 25, 2006 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

#16 should be "How to google/yahoo".

#17 should be disclose material affiliations.

Posted by: TLB on September 25, 2006 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Truth v Lie?

Posted by: klyde on September 25, 2006 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

How about some notion of responsibility to actually examine what people tell you and see if it's valid/true, rathern than just doing a he-said-she-said story?

Also, when did the conservative trolls here get so shitty?

Posted by: phleabo on September 25, 2006 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

I would add the following:

loose coupling from organizational theory
recovering that "conventional wisdom" was actually a pejorative to be contrasted w/ the opinion of those who know what the hell they're talking about.

Posted by: c on September 25, 2006 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

Much of the list (and suggestions made here) are straight from neoclassical economics, which is inherently quite conservative and, indeed, cynical.

"Oh, that person running a program for the poor is just rent seeking."

"Yes it might be good to help those in need of medical care, but it just isn't cost-effective to do this."

"Yes only 1 out of 100 welfare beneficiaries quit work to live off the government, but a concern with moral hazard tells use that we must eliminate the program because, well, we must."

Posted by: Eric on September 25, 2006 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Yahoo: Google "Innumeracy." It should be available on Amazon.

Posted by: Joyfully Subversive on September 25, 2006 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

Watching the progressive devolution of the Bush Cultists has been amusing, in a sad and sick sort of way, but nothing more so than American Chickenhawk's calling the estate tax "grave robbing."

Unless it's "Orwell's" clinging to the myth that the media is liberal, of course.

Posted by: Gregory on September 25, 2006 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

Other ideas to keep in mind:

Be skeptical. Question authority.

It takes a long time to get to really know somebody.

Just because a person quotes scripture doesn't mean s/he isn't an evil jerk out to steal your money, life or soul (if you've got one.)

Posted by: gar on September 25, 2006 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

Not just calculating data and information but

estimating as well.

In a pinch, we all need a honed ability to estimate (quantify so to speak) what we are writing about.

We estimate all the time, but how often are we careful with our estimates?

I maintain that an ability to estimate... to the dime, how much (for instance) your 23 grocery items will cost you... is an under appreciated mental tool that so often gets short shift in mathematics instruction.

Without an intuitive and estimative (Bushese) sense of our world, we falter when our silicon wonders are absent or defunct.

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on September 25, 2006 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Eric somewhat, and wonder what the right-wing complainers are complaining about. If reporters learned a lot of these concepts, they'd report on business and economic better. Wouldn't that be good?

Edo wrote: "PS you forgot to mention discounting future benefits and costs by the discount rate--typically a risk-free rate or a cost-of-capital rate; for the government they'd be essentially the same."

Wouldn't this be covered under the general rubric of "present value"? PVs are always discounted.

Posted by: RWB on September 25, 2006 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

Great list. Thanks, Kevin.

Posted by: ex-liberal on September 25, 2006 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

I must admit, his list includes things I often wiki up to show people they're missing something in life.

Posted by: Crissa on September 25, 2006 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

Kleiman's list is excellent. A basic knowledge of statistics and economics should be required before any reporter is turned loose on the public.

I would add calculus to the list. I view calculus as a proxy for a basic knowledge of science. The vast majority of students who have taken a year of calculus have also studied at the college level (or AP level in high school) physics, chemistry and/or biology.

Let's get reporters who don't take every press release from every special interest group (whether it's Greenpeace or the American Petroleum Institute or some plaintiff's lawyer) at face value.

Posted by: DBL on September 25, 2006 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

9 out of 15 are numeric! That's like 90% of them!

Posted by: Dug on September 25, 2006 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

How about simply some good history and politics courses?

The kind of stuff on this list reminds me of the problem with education today. Everything is middle class relational values, like "Do they speak up in class?" as opposed to knowledge-based, "Do they have anything to say worth hearing when they speak up in class?"

IF we ask reporters to take their cues from what the milieu of reporters currently are doing, than they're just fine as they are, aren't they? But if we instead fill their minds with actual knowledge of what the constitution says and how it has been interpreted historically, how the functions of the legislature and executive are doled out, when has corruption or lack of oversight occurred in the past and why, a critical analysis of how journalism could have changed things in the last 100 years ---- this is what we need to arm journalists with. Not concepts that they will regard as theoretical and largely ignore.

Posted by: catherineD on September 25, 2006 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

Reasonable people can disagree on abortion and the estate tax, but to put them into the same moral-issues ballpark takes the sort of mind I'd be afraid to be able to understand.

Posted by: CJColucci on September 25, 2006 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

How many of you thought: 9 out of 15! Bummer for Richard Cohen!

Also would like journalists to have some kind of appreciation that there's a world outside of the US. Can't get it succinct yet. Maybe the basic reality test: if there is no one other than a few Brits and Americans who support a proposal - maybe just maybe it ain't a good idea.

General bias that all reporters (and teachers too) should have a grounding in the discipline they're writing about: science writers on science, business writers on business, etc.

Posted by: Samuel Knight on September 25, 2006 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

I had a debate with a public radio journalist once. Shirley Jihad, of WBEZ, argued that if she ever needed to know more numeric stuff for a story she'd merely call an expert.

Of course, if you don't know much about numbers you don't even know when you need to call an expert.

Posted by: Carl Nyberg on September 25, 2006 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

True, terrorists may not themselves be as impoverished as their fellow citizens, but that doesn't disprove the claim that "terrorism is caused by poverty."

You could just as easily argue that being educated makes it that much easier for someone to see (and be upset by) the gap in riches between his country and the industrialized West.

And decide that terrorism is somehow the answer.

If you're going to debunk a maxim, you're going to have to do (much) better than that.

Posted by: Auto on September 25, 2006 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

16. EXTERNALITIES

"State of separation from the perceiving mind." [1913 Webster]

Externalities are those things ignored (not measured) by our current monetary economic systems; you know things like life itself, the cost of creating natural resources, services provided by natural systems (clean water to drink, oxygen to breathe etc)

That kind of stuff

"Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." - John Maynard Keynes

Posted by: daCascadian on September 25, 2006 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

Good list. I'd add Occam's Razor.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 25, 2006 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

Carl Nyberg: That reminds me of a debate I had with a city-dweller during the farm crisis of the 80's. I asked the guy where his groceries would come from if all the farmers lost their land. He looked at me like I was the idiot and said "Safeway."

(Today this might work, given the amount of food imported from South America, but at that point in time, it wasn't practicable, it was just ignorant.)

Posted by: Global Citizen on September 25, 2006 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

I forgot a few needed courses;

"Oprahization"
"Right Wing Conspiracies"
"Masking your bias"
"Female superiority"
"Finger Pointing"

And I can tell by Gregory's comment that he believes there is a liberal bias in the media. No matter how loud or repeatedly you try to say that the MSM isn't liberal won't make the lie suddenly become true. Liberal ideas are coming through loud and clear to America and have been for a long time. But keep screaming the Bush hatred, it is starting to get real funny. The rest of us will step out of the way and let you make a fool of yourself - right along with Chavez and Amajenadork.

The MSM is pretending to be unbiased and you don't see thier bias because they agree with you.

Posted by: Orwell on September 25, 2006 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

How about...

Distinguishing important news (wars, the economy, politics, living standards) from tabloid entertainment fluff (Paris Hilton). For example, this week's Newsweek: http://thinkprogress.org/2006/09/25/newsweeks-latest-cover-by-geographical-region/

Investigative journalism (a.k.a. don't just take a politician's word for it; at the very least, try Lexis-Nexus once in a while)

Accountability (ask tough questions and keep asking them until they are answered directly. Do not accept the usual political non-answer evasions. Also, if a politician lies to you, you have a duty to expose the lie and correct the record)

Fact are more important than political "balance". Not all arguments have two sides. Take Global Warming: the Science is overwhelmingly conclusive. Treating it as "anyone's guess" just because the GOP opposes it is the equivalent of East Germany (back in the day) treating the Holocaust as an unproven allegation just because their politicians denied it. Except Global Warming isn't an historical "comma" about 12 million victims, including 6 million Jews - it's something that threatens the very existence of this planet, populated with 6 billion plus living, breathing, feeling, human beings.

Posted by: Augustus on September 25, 2006 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

I'd be happy just to see them learn to write in a readable way about percentages. How many articles talk about percentage changes and leave you wondering whether they're talking changes, changes in the rate of change, a 10% increase in the base or a 10% greater change than the prior, or spaghetti?


Not mixing millions, billions & trillions would be a bonus.

Posted by: Downpuppy on September 25, 2006 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

How about "marginal cost" and "marginal benefit", as opposed to average cost and benefit?

Posted by: Brian MD on September 25, 2006 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

How about just having them work a minimum wage job or even teach in a near-urban public school for a year.

Many of our journalistic icons of the past did not start in journalism and spent some time doing scut work. Most journalists today start their career having done nothing but be graduated from a school of journalism. They possess nothing else in the way of life experiences.

During the 1970s 1990s, many of the workaday reporters on local radio and TV, got their start in Vietnam. They are so markedly different from the over coifed and tailored kids who have started their careers since.

Posted by: Keith G on September 25, 2006 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

Longtime reader, second (?)-time poster.

I teach English comp. The more I see of America, the more I find it necessary to teach the Milgram experiment.

Posted by: Laurel on September 25, 2006 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

And I can tell by Gregory's comment that he believes there is a liberal bias in the media.

Orwell evidently has trouble with reading comprehension, as well as reality perception and honesty.

Posted by: Gregory on September 25, 2006 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

Y'all have no idea how bad it is.

I've been a newspaper reporter & editor for more than 20 years, and not a month goes by that I don't get asked by one of my co-workers how to calculate a percentage change.

Posted by: Lex on September 25, 2006 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

RWB,

Wouldn't this be covered under the general rubric of "present value"? PVs are always discounted.

yes, but we were talking about #8 and #9 and the difference between them; see here and here.

Posted by: Edo on September 25, 2006 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK

I'd suggest a thorough history of American politics and world civilizations.

expected value, present value, and opportunity cost are too specialized. "Statistical control" (as opposed to multiple linear regression and analysis of covariance) is practically imaginary.

Posted by: republicrat on September 25, 2006 at 5:26 PM | PERMALINK

When I was a journalism student (1999), only one of my courses had any coverage at all of statistical or economic reporting, and that wasn't because of the course requirements. It was because we had an excellent professor who was fed-up with the work his colleagues were doing.

I think there should be a course on numerical and visual literacy for journalism students. And a "reading official documents" course. The unquestioning repitition and amplification of bad spin is bad; the fact that the reporters do it with the facts IN THEIR HANDS is appalling. They just don't know how to read the data, or are too lazy or hurried to figure it out.

Posted by: malcompetence on September 25, 2006 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

I know, it doesn't boil down to a compact phrase, but how about "How to investigate claims and report about the underlying facts rather than slavishly report 'he said'/'she said' without analysis."

All that other knowledge wouldn't really matter if the structure of the standard story doesn't change, as the improvements it would allow in the content can't be realized unless the reporter is actually seeking to understand and report underlying facts rather than record and parrot claims for interested party without evaluation.

I don't think the main problem is that reporters don't know how to think for themselves, but that reporters aren't expected to do so.

Posted by: cmdicely on September 25, 2006 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK


Why do colleges offer undergraduate majors in journalism to begin with?

I don't think there should be such a thing as a journalism student. To be clear, I don't think journalism should exist as an undergraduate major. Journalists should have to major in a subject (such as political science, environmental science, history). Training in journalistic writing could be acquired through additional undergraduate cousework (for instance as a minor) or perhaps through a short postgrad certificate program. Stats should of course be a requirement. Newspapers of course would not be required to hire such "accredited" journalists but their reputations and credibility would be enhanced by doing so.

Posted by: karin on September 25, 2006 at 5:56 PM | PERMALINK

A good advanced history course might help break reporters of their mindless use of "totalitarian"--a term long since discarded by most historians as unhelpful. In most cases, what reporters mean is "authoritarian." These terms are not synonyms.

A good history course might also help reporters when they deal with questions of evidence and intent. In particular, historians are quite uncomfortable with assuming intent (a commonplace among reporters). Why? Because intent is very difficult to prove. As a historian, I would qualify most statements about itent. On the other hand, reporters seem bedeviled by he-said she-saids, which are actually quite easily reconciled by factual evidence.

Lastly, reporters could use a little help on sourcing. If a college freshman used the quality of evidence frequently cited in even the NYT or WaPost, they very well might fail. Often the articles devolve into he-said she-saids, because reporters present us with dueling quotes from Carville and Mehlman. Why bother (except as a cynical use of 'color')? There are often disinterested 'experts' and sources out there... find them.

Posted by: cornfields on September 25, 2006 at 6:12 PM | PERMALINK

Karin - I totally get what you are saying. In the area of medicine I spent 20 years in (clinical lab science) most of the med techs are "4+1" degrees. I got my undergrad degree in Microbiology (4) then did my clinical year in a hospital-based training program (+1). This is a really great idea and it needs to be spread.

Also, we need to stop teaching science backwards, but that is another rant.

Posted by: Global Citizen on September 25, 2006 at 6:25 PM | PERMALINK

As a newspaper editor, let me weigh in on a few points.

Agreed on most points, but the list alone is superficial.

I am a left-liberal who finds the body of the Constitution archaic and anachronistic. (See Daniel Lazare's "The Frozen Republic" for more on this line of thinking.) I want the "separation of powers" taught ONLY if contrasted to a parliamentary government - and that system's pluses.

Cost-benefit analysis? Depends on who's teaching the class. You want Newt Gingrich or some clone indoctrinating students?

Cost-bennie analysis assumes that all things can be monetized. Cost-effectiveness assumes that we make decisions in a moral vacuum, as does cost-bennie analysis. No way to teach those two issues WELL without the moral dimension.

Eric's right. Much of this is neoclassical economics. Given Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is a relic of Enlightenment Deism and its' god-winding-up-the-clock-and-sitting-on-his-perfect-world-LazyBoy diety.

Mark left out: A class in informal logic/critical thinking. That way, the "ideas" of people like American Hawk would immediately be seen to be intellectually underfunded.


And Karin's right... I don't buy the need for J-school degree either... and I don't have one.

Keith... work at a min wage job? Stereotypes of rich liberal media aside, people at small dailies, and weeklies, don't make that much. I make a good one-third less than a STARTING schoolteacher in my city.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on September 25, 2006 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK
Also, we need to stop teaching science backwards, but that is another rant.

By "backwards" do you mean results first, process later? If so, I agree. If not, I'm kind of curious what you are getting at...

Posted by: cmdicely on September 25, 2006 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK

S-Gadfly, point well taken. I should have added, "a job outside of journalism". Being a slug at the lowest point of a corporate pecking order, even a small one, is an eye openning experience.

While an entry level job in small market journalism can have meager financial rewards, there still is a cachet not present stocking shelves at Food Warehouse.

Posted by: Keith G on September 25, 2006 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK

SocraticGadfly: I want the "separation of powers" taught ONLY if contrasted to a parliamentary government - and that system's pluses.

I recall that debate from high school, if not earlier. Why wait for college?

Cost-benefit analysis? Depends on who's teaching the class. You want Newt Gingrich or some clone indoctrinating students?

That's true of almost any subject.

Cost-bennie analysis assumes that all things can be monetized.

Only if you choose to approach it that way.

Cost-effectiveness assumes that we make decisions in a moral vacuum, as does cost-bennie analysis.

No, they don't have to.

Eric's right. Much of this is neoclassical economics. Given Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is a relic of Enlightenment Deism and its' god-winding-up-the-clock-and-sitting-on-his-perfect-world-LazyBoy diety.

Smith was a classical economist. The neo-classicals didn't come along for about a century.

While neo-classical economics has more than a few problems, such as internal contradictions and inherent instabilities in its mathematical models (see Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences for an excellent overview), it is not inherently right-wing.

Want to make a market fundamentalist's head explode? Try this. Neo-classical economics was also called the Marginal Revolution (long before the website). Its central tenet is diminishing marginal utility. Money, like anything else, has diminishing marginal utility to a person (an extra $1k/yr is worth more to someone who makes $10k/yr than someone who makes $1M/yr). Hence a more even distribution of income leads to greater overall utility. QED.

Posted by: alex on September 25, 2006 at 6:59 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely; By "teaching science backwards" I mean that instead of starting with biology then moving on to chemistry and finally physics, we are teaching science in the reverse order that logic would dictate.

We all know that physics is the basis of chemistry, and chemistry is the basis of biology. Therefore, physics should be taught first, chemistry second, and biology last.

When my kids were in high-school, I raised so much hell that they let my son into physics as a freshman. The next year they just changed the policy, since I had two more right behind him and had mobilized the parents to the point that they had a collective "eureka!" moment.

I'm in pretty good company on this issue. Edward O. Wilson and I are in total agreement here.

Posted by: Global Citizen on September 25, 2006 at 7:04 PM | PERMALINK

Logical Fallacies and the Art of Debate.

Posted by: JS on September 25, 2006 at 7:42 PM | PERMALINK
cmdicely; By "teaching science backwards" I mean that instead of starting with biology then moving on to chemistry and finally physics, we are teaching science in the reverse order that logic would dictate.

We all know that physics is the basis of chemistry, and chemistry is the basis of biology. Therefore, physics should be taught first, chemistry second, and biology last.

I dunno, we teach a lot of math results and rules, and drill them hard, before covering their underpinnings, and the dependence in math is even more absolute, and I don't see how we could do it any other way, really. So I don't think that "logic dictates" that underpinnings be taught first. OTOH, while broadly physics underlies both chemistry and biology, and chemistry underlies much of biology, at the high school level where the conventional biology->chemistry->physics cycle is generally taught, at least when I took it in the late 1980s in the districts I took it in, the scope of the courses was such that there wasn't a whole lot where changing the order would have made a lot of difference to understanding.

And I think a good argument can be made that working "backwards" in that respect is actually working forward, as science more broadly does, toward the broader, more fundamental processes from a broad array of higher-level observed processes.

Posted by: cmdicely on September 25, 2006 at 7:48 PM | PERMALINK

U.S. Journalism students should have a basic grasp of the U.S. federal budget, not to memorize the numbers exactly, but to know, for example, that defense/military is about half of the discretionary budget at over $400 billion, not including supplemental and emergency funding, and that foreign aid is only about 2% of the discretionary budget. They should be familiar with the magnituted of present federal deficit and those of the previous administration.

U.S. Journalism students should be exposed to Kenneth Arrow's impossibility theorem and the Free rider problem.

There are many more essential concepts in the areas of biology, physics, philosopy, economics, law, and other fields.

Posted by: Joel Rubinstein on September 25, 2006 at 7:57 PM | PERMALINK

I'd propose adding something more basic to the list: arithmetic.

I heard a radio talk show host today say this: "That's a billion. You know what a billion is? It's a million million."

I don't think the problem is confusion about "regression toward the mean." Innumeracy is much more fundamental than that.

Posted by: JJF on September 25, 2006 at 8:20 PM | PERMALINK

What on earth do journalism "students" even learn? Honestly, what are some of the classes in journalism "school?" Use Of Commas 101? Intro to Adobe Pagemaker? This has always completely baffled me.

Posted by: Horatio on September 25, 2006 at 8:33 PM | PERMALINK

JJF: You know what a billion is? It's a million million.

Well, it was in Britain. Of course those people also think that a biscuit is a cookie.

Posted by: alex on September 25, 2006 at 8:37 PM | PERMALINK

Of course those people also think that a biscuit is a cookie.

My favorite is "Lollipop Men" for crossing guards.

Posted by: Global Citizen on September 25, 2006 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

the estate tax is grave robbing?

I guess that's so if the dead fellow was trying to take it with him

Posted by: bobo the chimp on September 25, 2006 at 9:06 PM | PERMALINK

"What on earth do journalism "students" even learn? Honestly, what are some of the classes in journalism "school?" Use Of Commas 101? Intro to Adobe Pagemaker? This has always completely baffled me.
Posted by: Horatio on September 25, 2006 at 8:33 PM | PERMALINK"

It's 2006. You are literally seconds away from that information through the same device you used to deride journalism education.

http://www.com.washington.edu/Program/Undergrad/Areas/journalism.html

Posted by: jefff on September 25, 2006 at 9:38 PM | PERMALINK

"http://www.com.washington.edu/Program/Undergrad/Areas/journalism.html"

Heh, and as expected: no statistics class. Not that I am suprised, statistics usually is not even a requirement for science majors.

Posted by: jefff on September 25, 2006 at 9:41 PM | PERMALINK

It is at my university. I have a stat 535 exam in 14 hours.

Posted by: Global Citizen on September 25, 2006 at 10:00 PM | PERMALINK

Reckon if there is anything worth knowing that is not about economics? Like, oh, I don't know -- science, history, other cultures, languages? It is one thing to be an expert, it is another altogether to be myopic.


Posted by: pjcamp on September 25, 2006 at 10:34 PM | PERMALINK

Hugh Hewitt wrote about his two day stay at the Columbia School of MSMdom a while back. He asked several hundred students if they knew what the significance of the phrase "Christmas in Cambodia" was, and not one on them could relate it to Major Frank Burns running for president in the last election.

Posted by: minion of rove on September 25, 2006 at 10:55 PM | PERMALINK

the estate tax is grave robbing? In the same idiot-libertarian way that income tax is armed robbery/extortion: an estate tax a bog-standard tax on the transfer of assets, but calling it "grave robbing" is just dressing it up in a lurid and ultimately brainless  title.

As for the list, basic probablity theory would probably be a good thing to add to it. A fairly painless intro for laymen (disguised as a series of Sherlock Holmes stories) is Colin Bruce's Conned Again, Watson!


Posted by: Calton Bolick on September 25, 2006 at 11:02 PM | PERMALINK

As I recall, economist Brad Delong co-taught a course last year at UC Berkeley's journalism school about economic reporting. Hmm, and here its:

J298 : Covering the Economy: The Story Behind The Numbers:

Sometime in your career you will have to write/ broadcast a story about unemployment or inflation or interest rates or the trade deficit. If you were working now, you'd almost certainly be making routine reference to what it costs to fight a war or rebuild a city devastated by natural disaster. The numbers and indicators to measure these abstract things abound, but which ones tell the real story? Which ones are manipulated or just plain phony? How do you determine the difference? Who do call to find out? And once you find your deep throated expert, how do you know your reporting is not becoming part of somebody else's agenda? What do you write/broadcast about wealth or poverty or housing prices when your deadline is in 10 minutes, a few days, or a couple of months? The Tuesday, Wednesday timing is designed to accommodate possible changes in Brad DeLong's schedule and to ensure that we can accomodate students taking the Advanced Business Reporting Class. The two classes are designed to be complimentary. Professor DeLong is a distinguished member of the Economics Dept faculty, a former Treasury Department official, a serious blogger and a swell source. Class will be seminar style, with one major writing project designed for print, radio or multimedia, TBD. There is limited funding for a week of reporting over Spring Break in Washington, D.C.

http://journalism.berkeley.edu/program/courses/descriptions.php

Well, cool.


Posted by: Calton Bolick on September 25, 2006 at 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

I taught a journalism class at one of Kevin's least favorite schools (USC) a few years ago. The thing students hated me most for - and there were many - was a math test. It covered such mind-boggling things as inflation rates and percentage change. As a group, journalists are afraid of math. Kevin's list is quite good; the only addition I would suggest is calculating statistical error.
What to read? Try the works of John Allan Paulos, a math professor at Temple University who loves both numbers and newspapers. Someone else already has referred to his book "Innumeracy." I would also suggest his "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper." Both show how journalists' fear of numbers shapes the way they report the news.

Posted by: hb714 on September 26, 2006 at 12:20 AM | PERMALINK

JS, I already referred to critical thinking. I heartly recommend "The Skeptic's Dictionary" to everybody. Or www.skepdic.com.

=====

Alex, my apologies for not having finer distinctions. I took one econ class, long ago. But, did not neo-classical economics arise from classical? And does it not have at least some of Smith's same metaphysical assumptions? And, arguably, Smith isn't inherently right-wing himself; he's wrong in his metaphysical assumptions, period, compounded by being hijacked by right-wingers.

I'll also stand behind my comment on cost-bennie and cost-effectiveness. That said, to be taught in a moral vacuum does not imply they are being taughtimmorally, just amorally.

======

Horatio: Nobody uses PageMaker any more. It's a piece of crap.

====

That said, let's look at Jefff's link to U.Wash.

Are two four-hour courses in reporting PLUS a five-hour lab course needed? I think not.

Mass Media Law doesn't need to be that long. Journalism Ethics could be taught as an add-on module to a more general ethics class.

What's missing?

A class in science journalism, or even a "module."

And, for print journalists who may go to weeklies, semiweeklies or small dailies, and contra Horatio's crack about PageMaker, there's no class in design, copy editing or anything related.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on September 26, 2006 at 1:22 AM | PERMALINK

It's reasonable to assume that a list of terms that a journalist might need to know in order to avoid being stupid would include a lot of economics. Frankly, that's the subject where they're most likely to have to take "varaible statistic x" and explain how it changes "situation y" in simple terms. This can be complicated, given that most journalists can't assume that the readers know much more than basic math. (We can't all work for the WSJ...)

There's plenty of other scientific terms and information that a journalist might need to know, sure. But with a lot of them, they can do some last-minute review and pick it up on the fly, if they're willing to put in the work. If you don't understand the difference between correlation and causation, though, you probably shouldn't open your mouth about any topic that is remotely scientific whatsoever. It's a disaster waiting to happen!

The sad part is, every one of them -knows- the difference. If you told them, "Black people commit more crimes, therefore being black makes you commit more crimes," they wouldn't need to sit around scratching their noggins to figure out the problem with that statement. But too many of them can't generalize that into a broader principle...

(At least, I'm hoping that they'd disagree because of correlation and causation, not just "that's not true!" Maybe I'm too optimistic...)

Posted by: Avatar on September 26, 2006 at 1:26 AM | PERMALINK

I've long thought that one of the weaknesses of a standard math education is that high school math after algebra emphasized geometry and calculus to the exclusion of prob/stat, which is arguably much more important to anyone who isn't headed for a hard science major.

This is one reason why Paulos is a good choice; he's a statistician.

Let me embellish #4 with expected value = mean vs median vs mode, and add small N fluctuations as a generalization of the fallacy of reasoning from anecdotes.

Posted by: fizz on September 26, 2006 at 1:51 AM | PERMALINK

I nominate

modus ponens

modus tollens

hypothetical syllogism.

Posted by: James E. Powell on September 26, 2006 at 2:46 AM | PERMALINK

#2 should be something like "Regression to find a mean" in multi-variate statistical analysis.

Posted by: raj on September 26, 2006 at 4:08 AM | PERMALINK

How about

the precautionary principle

Used by Bush/Blair to justify the war in Iraq.

Used by environmentalists (and lots of other people) to justify just about anything they want, when they don't have a real argument.

Posted by: guest on September 26, 2006 at 6:50 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: amr铃声 on September 26, 2006 at 6:58 AM | PERMALINK

hey guest,
Were you aware that the Precautionary Principle (note capitalization) is codified in the Maastricht Treaty?
Loosely translated: if you're not sure, and can't prove it's not gonna fuck something up, you can't do it.

As such, I kinda Doubt Messrs. Bush and Blair used it to justify invading Iraq.

Tho' it could be one of those " ... you keep using that word - I don't think it means what you think it means." moments.

Posted by: kenga on September 26, 2006 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe I missed it, but how about a basic course in scientific method? Or maybe vocabulary - so reporters can differentiate between a hypothesis and a theory, and use those words correctly.

Posted by: kenga on September 26, 2006 at 8:53 AM | PERMALINK

The list is pretty comic, in a dreadful kind of way, as are the many of the well intentioned comments. What it sounds like some people believe is that unless one is an engineer AND a statistician AND an economist then one shouldn't be a reporter. As it is, I know engineers, statisticians, and economists. Few of them would make good reporters since they've got all the people skills that make rocks (jagged) such attractive dinner guests.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on September 26, 2006 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

Jeffrey Davis sez: What it sounds like some people believe is that unless one is an engineer AND a statistician AND an economist then one shouldn't be a reporter.

That's foolish. It doesn't take a statistician to understand "expected value" ... any highschooler can and should understand the concept. Actual statisticians reach rather higher than that, yes?

The same goes for scientists and "correlation vs. causation", economists and "rent seeking", sociologists and "institutional culture", and all the others on the list. These aren't Ph.D. level concepts, even though Kleiman may have used their jargony names.

There are the barest simple concepts of a number of fields, all of them within the reach of any literate and numerate human.

Your argument, Jeffrey, makes it sound as if the lack of even basic education is a benefit to journalists because all people with knowledge are socially incompetent. I think you've taken your pocket-protector preconceptions rather far.

Posted by: IdahoEv on September 26, 2006 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

I would add:

Cognitive biases, particularly:
-- Confirmation Bias
-- Forer Effect

Logical fallacies, particularly:
-- straw man
-- ad hominem

Just understanding and extrapolating those four would cut 80% of the bullshit out of the "news", imho.

Posted by: IdahoEv on September 26, 2006 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

SocraticGadfly: Alex, my apologies for not having finer distinctions.

That's ok, I was being pedantic.

did not neo-classical economics arise from classical?

Yes. The big problem with the classical economics was their labor theory of value (Marx used it to "prove" that capitalism would collapse). The neoclassicists used the notion of marginal utility to avoid that problem. The basic idea makes sense.

And does it not have at least some of Smith's same metaphysical assumptions?

I don't think Smith was being metaphysical in talking about the invisible hand. It was just a metaphor for a desireable outcome that occurs without central control.

He was arguing against mercantilism, which involved heavy government involvement in areas of the economy which most liberals today would agree the government should stay out of. Smith himself wasn't obsessed with the term "invisible hand". He used it only three times in his book.

arguably, Smith isn't inherently right-wing himself ... compounded by being hijacked by right-wingers

I love to point out how many things Smith said (in the same book) that would put wingnuts panties in a twist. He was for caps on interest rates, believed in luxury taxes, and thought corporations were inherently inefficient.

I'll also stand behind my comment on cost-bennie and cost-effectiveness. That said, to be taught in a moral vacuum does not imply they are being taught immorally, just amorally.

Cost/benefit and cost effectiveness have a bad reputation because they're often used as excuses. It should be pointed out in a class that this isn't the only, or indeed even an appropriate, way to use them.

Posted by: alex on September 26, 2006 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

I would add Occam's Razor.

Posted by: matt on September 26, 2006 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

Your argument, Jeffrey, makes it sound as if the lack of even basic education is a benefit to journalists because all people with knowledge are socially incompetent. I think you've taken your pocket-protector preconceptions rather far.

Most reporters don't cover economic news. Simple as that. There's illiteracy about some issues, sure, but reporters, as a class, are generalists. And being stuffed to the gills with technical training is no guarantee that the economic/engineering/stat-savvy reporter would have a lick of curiosity, grace, or common sense. Drawing up a list like this is the equivalent of wishing a frog had wings or Republican pundits would enlist in the military.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on September 26, 2006 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

Jeffrey Davis, it's true that reporters should be generalists, not specialists. The argument here was, however, whether the items on the list should be required knowledge for an educated generalist today -- especially one that has the job of helping the average Joe interpret and understand the world. I believe that, overall, the answer should be yes.

Actual engineers, statisticians, and economists have to know much more than what's on this list -- I assume you know that.

Posted by: JS on September 26, 2006 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

Joyfully Subversive: Thanks much for the recomendation!

Posted by: Yahoo on September 26, 2006 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

One more, lifted from comments at DeLong's:
statistical significance vs practical significance

Posted by: SamChevre on September 26, 2006 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

And being stuffed to the gills with technical training is no guarantee that the economic/engineering/stat-savvy reporter would have a lick of curiosity, grace, or common sense.

No, of course it is not. But then again, common sense is no guarantee that one has writing skill, either, yet that is necessary to be a good reporter.

But you missed the most important point: none of these concepts fits the description "stuffed to the gills with technical training"; despite the fancy names these are all simple concepts anyone can handle but which add a breadth to the understanding of any topic.

"Rent Seeking" just means, more or less, "trying to make a buck by manipulating the economy without contributing to it". It's simple, but a useful lens for understanding why some economic activities are considered immoral or illegal.

"correlation vs causation" is hardly a difficult concept but disinformation caused by conflating the two is a chronic problem in journalism in every field.

We're not talking rocket science. If we were, you'd have a point. But we're talking trivial basics anyone can understand -- which makes you sound like you're arguing in favor of complete ignorance in the media.

Posted by: IdahoEv on September 26, 2006 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

1. Due Diligence

Posted by: Jimm on September 26, 2006 at 9:49 PM | PERMALINK

Add "Broken window fallacy" in economics (as was thrown around here earlier, about healtcare needs propping up the economy.)

Posted by: Neil' on September 27, 2006 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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