You don’t have to read much of the daily paper, in the US at least, to see datapresented in very interesting ways.

“Gas price SKYROCKETS to $4 a gallon!”

“The Dow Jones Industrial Average PLUMMETS to 12,500!”

“Pistons [Basketball Team] Have the EDGE Now!”

“Kid Obesity Rate STEADY”

Now, part of the reason for this hyperbole isthat exciting headlines get more people to buy the paper, andso you may think thattheexaggeration is just a way to get people to read the accompanying story.

But when you look more closely, thegas price moved from$3.97 the week before; the DJIA had been 12,600on the previous day, the Pistons were tied 2-2with the Celtics, and buried in the paragraph about the kids was this statement: “…it’s too soon to know if this really means we’re beginning to make meaningful inroads… it may simply be a statistical fluke.”

Well, that putsa little different spin on the headlines. I worry about this for two main reasons. First, we are all at the mercy of first impressions, and while newspapers need to sell, they sometimes do it by presenting data in a way that is easy to get alarmed over, but not easy to understand (as we project engineers would understand it). Now, no one expects to see or hear detailed information on how the data was collected, or how thesample size was calculated.Buthow many people read the full story in depth? At least, we should train ourselves (and our kids) to realize when data is being presented as a teaser for the story. As I put it in my Lean Six Sigma class, “What questions should you ask about how this data was collected?”

The other reason that I worry is that the math that my kids were taught, in their suburban-Detroit high school, had very little to do with real life; they could figure cosines andvectors and the slope of a line, but not how to figure whether a drop of 12,600 to 12,500 was cataclysmic. I for one would eliminate geometry in favor of astatistics class – including statistical process control, presented with real-life scenarios. Then readers and viewers and listeners could have an idea about whether data was being presented in a rational way by the news media.

What do you think? Is data presented in the news in an ALARMING fashion???

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