Innumeracy among political journalists

John shoots down David Brooks’s claim that “If you look at the fundamentals, the president should be getting crushed right now.” John points out (as does Ezra Klein) that if you look at the fundamentals, you’d expect a close election. OK, there are lots of ways of looking at politics, elections, and the economy, and I’m sure that some forecasts give Obama a bit lead. But that’s hardly a consensus reading of the fundamentals. The more parsimonious reading here is that Brooks was (a) misinformed and (b) didn’t know with whom to talk to get informed.

I’m reminded of the statements last December from second-string pundit Gregg Easterbrook that (a) if Newt Gingrich were to become the Republican nominee, he’d have a 10% chance of beating Obama, and (b) “If I am Barack Obama, I want to run against Mitt Romney.”

Easterbrook didn’t seem to realize that if you put these two pieces together, you get the claim that Romney has less than a 10% chance of winning. (Intrade currently has Romney at 40%. At the time of Easterbrook’s post, Intrade had Romney with a 33% chance of being elected president in 2012, unconditional on the results of the Republican nomination.)

I have no objection to Brooks arguing that the political science models are wrong, just as there’s nothing wrong with Easterbrook arguing that the punters on Intrade are deluded. But I’d like to see them make the actual argument, to confront the implications of what they’re saying.

One aspect of innumeracy is seeing numbers as words, as rhetorical expressions rather than as quantities that can be added and subtracted, multiplied and divided. That’s what’s going on when Brooks talks about the fundamentals without looking, when Easterbrook throws out a bunch of predictions without checking their coherence, or when Reid Hastie thinks there’s a there’s a 20% chance “that a massive flood will occur sometime in the next year and drown more than 1,000 Americans.”

Also, deadline pressure. These guys don’t get to blog whenever they want, like we do. And they’re not rewarded for making sense, they’re rewarded for getting attention. Maybe even this sort of attention is ok for them!

3 Responses to Innumeracy among political journalists

  1. Boris Shor May 16, 2012 at 12:15 pm #


    Even if Brooks has taken a flight of fancy on this, we should credit him with being somewhat receptive to social science evidence (eg his response to our Red State Blue State book). The bar is low, true, but still he clears it more than most.

    • Andrew Gelman May 16, 2012 at 1:07 pm #


      Yes, I think he’s doing his best and has had useful insights (including his red-state blue-state thing that got us stated). Easterbrook has had his good moments too. I think one problem with these columnists is that they’re working off the template of the 5-paragraph essay from high school. In that context, you don’t need to get the facts right, you just need to make a case in a smooth-flowing manner.

      Blogging is really a different paradigm, I think. A blog post can be any length and it’s not required or expected to come to a crisp conclusion. Bloggers can be full of crap, of course, but I still prefer the blog post rather than the “essay” or “op-ed” as a format for reflections.

  2. Robert May 21, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    Who among political journalists do you think is doing a good job (with respect to numeracy)?