The Serious Innumeracy of Some Mainstream News Outlets
You’ve probably heard about a tweet by Mekita Rivas last week. She wrote:
Bloomberg spent $500 million on ads. The U.S. population is 327 million. He could have given each American $1 million and still have money left over. I feel like a $1 million check would be life-changing for most people. Yet he wasted it on ads and STILL LOST.
Her incredible innumeracy need not be that upsetting. I had never heard of her and probably 95% of Americans have never heard of her.
Here’s the upsetting part: NBC’s Brian Williams and Mara Gay of the New York Times Board of Editors repeated it and in their repeating, showed that they believed it:
“When I read it tonight on social media, it kind of all became clear,” Williams said.
The tweet read: “Bloomberg spent $500 million on ads. The U.S. Population, 327 million. He could have given each American $1 million and have had lunch money left over.”
“It’s an incredible way of putting it,” Williams said.
“It’s an incredible way of putting it,” Gay said. “It’s true. It’s disturbing.”
It’s not true. But it is disturbing. And if you don’t believe that Brian Williams believed it, watch and listen to the 45-second video.
Mara Gay tweeted later “Buying a calculator, brb.” (I had to check: “brb” means “be right back.”)
It is true that using a calculator would have helped her correct the mistake. It’s also true that she didn’t need a calculator.
$500 million is 500 times $1 million. You don’t need a calculator to know that. Which means that Bloomberg could have given $1 million each to 500 people. 500 is way, way, way, less than 300 million, the approximate number of Americans living in the United States. (There are approximately 30 million non-U.S. citizens living here.) And you don’t need a calculator to make either of the two observations: (1) seeing that $500 million is 500 times $1 million and (2) seeing that 500 is way less than 300 million.
Why is this so disturbing? Because many people get their news from people like Brian Williams. When various critics of Medicare for All and/or the Green New Deal talk about how those programs, alone or together, will result in increases in government spending of many trillions of dollars over just 10 years, they think that they are communicating something important. I do too. But some of the media people to whom they’re communicating do what I have pointed out is a major error innumerate people make: mistaking one large number with another large number.
Brian Williams could probably have thought this through. But he didn’t. So at best this shows him to be incredibly intellectually lazy.