Numeric Incompetence Syndrome (NIS)

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Here is a direct quotation from my local newspaper:

“Aboriginal women are at least 32 times more likely to be hospitalised because of an assault by their partner than non-indigenous women.

“They are at least three times as likely to have experienced violence in the past year than non-indigenous women.

“All this despite comprising a far smaller proportion of the population.”

The writer (Lauren Novak) is drawing attention to important statistics and goes on to suggest ameliorative measures. But she spoils it for me in that third paragraph. Having correctly compared rates of hospitalisation and exposure to violence, she then demonstrates a failure to understand what a rate is.

I don’t want to pick on Ms Novak, who is a much-awarded professional journalist whom I have never met. This is just one example of what I have now dubbed Numeric Incompetence Syndrome (NIS). It seems to afflict journalists and sub-editors disproportionately, but perhaps that’s because their condition is on public display more often than other sufferers’.

I’m thinking about an annual award for the most egregious manifestation of NIS: a Nissy to sit alongside the well-established and eagerly-awaited Stroppy**. What do you think?

Since writing this I have seen another howler in my local newspaper (one of Rupert Murdoch’s, by the way): a little matter of a displaced decimal point in a graphic summary of the South Australian State Budget, showing annual revenue and expenditure to be A$1.9 billion instead of A$19 billion. Now that’s the sort of thing a sub-editor should pick up, don’t you think?

** The Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle, awarded every January, for which nominations are always open.

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One thought on “Numeric Incompetence Syndrome (NIS)

  1. I find it hard to believe that such a blunder would be likely when I was a boy in the 1940s or 50s.

    It ranks with the notion that one can mark down items by 40% and not make a loss if they were initially marked up by a 40% profit margin.

    I preach the “test of reasonableness” when looking at numbers. But it seems that not all know what is reasonable. Is it reasonable that a two lane road is 1.0m wide? To some, yes, since hey did not pick up the blunder of a misplaced decimal point. Just like your budget example.

    Ron

    Like

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