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June 01, 2012



I have a degree in Economics from a good University and all those three years really taught me is that the economy is really complex and I haven't a clue about it. The more you learn the less you know..

Yet I have mates who have never studied the subject in their lives telling me they think Paul Krugman is an idiot.

And most journalists are just "your mates down the pub", with English degrees and self-confidence.


Call it the moralist's fallacy...

(@pablo: if the more your learn, the less you know, then your mates down the pub do indeed know better than PK ;-)


I call it a 'survey of one'. I'd noticed that journalists tend to fall into this trap. Never let the truth stand in the way of a good headline!


Correlation really doesn't imply causation, and most actual correlations aren't that strong statistically. Most sociologist, most of the time, are providing negative evidence at best. But that's a really depressing thought, innit?


"Yet I have mates who have never studied the subject in their lives telling me they think Paul Krugman is an idiot."

May be you need some new mates? Prof.Krugman seems like a very nice person, although I have not had the pleasure of an introduction, and very bright. Unlike your friends.

Will Davies

I can stomach the statisticians vs journalists debate, as long as the former also accept that they have a political and cultural history. The notion that there is an objective view of society dates back to the French Revolution, but many of the techniques available for analysing it only emerged in the late 19th century and then matured in the 1920s and '30s (sampling techniques and econometrics).

With apologies for sounding like a post-modernist, I think there are good reasons why an understanding of statistical normality is beneficial to public debate, but very few statisticians ever articulate them. In a sort of Dawkins/Goldacre fashion, they are presented as unarguable and obvious. I agree that statistical sophistication is supportive of an enlightend public sphere, whereas knee-jerk op-ed-ism is far less so. But there are justifications for this, which can and should be articulated. It's irritating when quant people just assume that they're dealing in reality, and everyone else is just partaking in an expanded version of a Stoke Newington dinner party.


«I call it a 'survey of one'. I'd noticed that journalists tend to fall into this trap. Never let the truth stand in the way of a good headline!»

It is not a trap: it is their job. Journalists get paid to entertain their readers, that is to spin stories that excite them and confirm their prejudices.

Blame the readers for buying that. The journalists are just responding to a market for news-as-entertainment, or even news-as-propaganda.

The day that newspapers increase their sales (or their proprietors cover higher losses) by reporting realistic, sober stories, you will get them.


But you must admit that the comic value of the implication that Zoe Williams feels she and her experiences are representative of the general public's is great indeed.


Is it down to ignorance or laziness? Perhaps Asthana, Williams and Smith are all well aware that their own experiences and those of their friends are not necessarily representative of anything - but searching for real evidence would have required them to do some actual work. And since, as Blissex notes, the role of columnists is to entertain and provoke rather than inform, they wouldn't necessarily have had a better article (from that point of view) at the end of it.

If I was running a newspaper I would not employ any regular columnists, because after a while they always get lazy and start either to repeat themselves, to feed off other columnists or to deal in personal anecdotes as is the case above.

And then, finally, when they really can't be bothered at all any more, they resort to the final refuge of the desperate British newspaper pundit: the article bashing cyclists for running red lights.


Please could you explain "availability heuristic"?

Frances Coppola

Rick calls it "I Know A Man Who....". I believe the correct term is "generalising from the particular". And we all do it, a lot of the time (and I have just given a fine example of it!)

Andrew Curry

As the saying goes: the singular of 'data' isn't 'anecdote'.

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