A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper
John Allen Paulos
"I read the news today, Oh Boy."
My earliest memories, dating from the late 1940s, include hearing a distant train whistle from the back steps of the building we lived in on Chicago's near north side. I can also see myself crying under the trapezi (Greek for "table") when my grandmother left to go home to her apartment. I remember watching my mother rub her feet in bed at night, and I remember my father playing baseball and wearing his baseball cap indoors to cover his thinning hair. And, lest you wonder where I'm heading, I can recall watching my grandfather at the kitchen table reading the Chicago Tribune.
The train whistle and the newspaper symbolized the outside world, frighteningly yet appealingly different from the warm family ooze in which I was happily immersed. What was my grandfather reading about? Where was the tram going? Were these somehow connected?When I was five, we moved from a boisterous city block to the sterile environs of suburban Milwaukee, 90 miles and 4 light-years to the north. Better, I suppose, in some conventional 1950s sense, for my siblings and me, but it never felt as nurturing, comfortable, or alive. But this introduction is not intended to be an autobiography, so let me tell you about the Milwaukee Journal’s Green Sheet. This insert, literally green, was full of features that fascinated me. At the top was a saying by Phil Osopher that always contained some wonderfully puerile pun. There was also the "Ask Andy" column: science questions and brief answers. Phil and Andy became friends of mine. And then there was an advice column by a woman with the unlikely name of Ione Quinby Griggs, who gave no-nonsense Midwestern counsel. Of course, I also read the sports pages and occasionally even checked the first section to see what was happening in the larger world.
Every summer my siblings and I left Milwaukee and traveled to Denver, where my grandparents had retired. On long, timeless Saturday afternoons, I'd watch Dizzy Dean narrate the baseball game of the' week on television and then listen through the static on my grandmother's old radio-as-big-as-a-refrigerator as my hero, Eddie Matthews, hit home runs for the distant Milwaukee Braves. The next morning I'd run out to the newspaper box on the comer of Kierney and Colfax, deposit my 5 cents, and eagerly scour the Rocky Mountain News for the box scores. A few years later, I would scour the same paper for news of JFK.
Back home, my affair with the solid Milwaukee Journal deepened (local news, business pages, favorite columnists) until I left for the University of Wisconsin in Madison, at which time the feisty Capitol Times began to alienate my affections. Gradually my attitude toward newspapers matured and, upon moving to Philadelphia after marriage and graduate school, my devotion devolved into a simple adult appreciation of good newspaper reporting and writing. My former fetishism is still apparent, however, in the number of papers I read and in an excessive affection for their look, feel, smell, and peculiarities. I subscribe to the Philadelphia Inquirer and to the paper of record, the New York Times, which arrives in my driveway wrapped in blue plastic. I also regularly skim the Wall Street Journal and the Philadelphia Daily News, occasionally took at USA Today (when I feel a powerful urge to see weather maps in color), the Washington Post, the suburban Ambler Gazette, the Bar Harbor Times, the local paper of any city I happen to be visiting, the tabloids, and innumerable magazines.
At fairly regular intervals and despite the odd credential of a Ph.D. in mathematics, I even cross the line myself to review a book, write an article, or fulminate in an op-ed. But if I concentrate on it, reading the paper can still evoke the romance of distant and uncharted places.
One result of my unnatural attachment to newspapers is this book. Structured like the morning paper, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper examines the mathematical angles of stories in the news. I consider newspapers not merely out of fondness, however. Despite talk of the ascendancy of multimedia and the decline of print media, I think the rational tendencies that newspapers foster will survive (if we do), and that in some form or other newspapers will remain our primary means of considered public discourse. As such, they should enhance our role as citizens and not reduce it to that of mere consumers and voyeurs (although there's nothing wrong with a little buying and peeking). In addition to placing increased emphasis on analysis, background, and features, there is another, relatively unappreciated way in which newspapers can better fulfill this responsibility. It is by knowledgeably reflecting the increasing mathematical complexity of our society in its many quantitative, probabilistic, and dynamic facets.
This book provides suggestions on how this can be done. More important, it offers novel perspectives, questions, and recommendations to coffee drinkers, straphangers, policy makers, gossip mongers, bargain hunters, trendsetters, and others who can't get along without their daily paper. Mathematical naiveté can put such readers at a disadvantage in thinking about many issues in the news that may seem not to involve mathematics at all. Happily, a sounder understanding of these issues can be obtained by reflecting on a few basic mathematical ideas, and even those who despised the subject in school will, I hope, find them fascinating, rewarding, and accessible here.
But perhaps you need a bit more persuasion. Pulitzer, after all, barely fits in the same sentence as Pythagoras. Newspapers are daily periodicals dealing with the changing details of everyday fife, whereas mathematics is a timeless discipline concerned with abstract truth. Newspapers deal with mess and contingency and crime, mathematics with symmetry and necessity and the sublime. The newspaper reader is everyman, the mathematician an elitist. Furthermore, because of the mind-numbing way in which mathematics is generally taught, many people have serious misconceptions about the subject and fail to appreciate its wide applicability.
It's time to let the secret out: Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us.
As we'll see, "number stories' complement, deepen, and regularly undermine "people stories." Probability considerations can enhance articles on crime, health risks, or racial and ethnic bias. Logic and selfreference may help to clarify the hazards of celebrity, media spin control and reportorial involvement in the news. Business finance, the multiplication principle, and simple arithmetic point up consumer fallacies, electoral tricks, and sports myths. Chaos and nonlinear dynamics suggest how difficult and frequently worthless economic and environmental predictions are. And mathematically pertinent notions from philosophy and psychology provide perspective on a variety of public issues. AR these ideas give us a revealing, albeit oblique, slant on the traditional Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of the journalist's craft.
The misunderstandings between mathematicians and others run in both directions. Out of professional myopia, the former sometimes fail to grasp the crucial element of a situation, as did the three statisticians who took up duck hunting. The first fired and his shot sailed six inches over the duck. Then the second fired and his shot flew six inches below the duck. At this, the third statistician excitedly exclaimed, "We got it!"
Be warned that, although the intent of this book is serious and its tone largely earnest, a few of the discussions may strike the reader as similarly off the mark. Nonetheless, the duck hunters (and I) will almost always have a point. My emphasis throughout will be on qualitative understanding, pertinence to daily life, and unconventional viewpoints. What new insights does mathematics give us into news stories and popular culture? How does it obscure and intimidate? What mathematical/psychological rules of thumb can guide us in reading the newspaper? Which numbers, relations, and associations are to be trusted, which dismissed as coincidental or nonsensical, which further analyzed, supplemented, or alternatively interpreted? (Don't worry about the mathematics itself It is either elementary or else is explained briefly in self-contained portions as needed. If you can find the continuation of a story on page B16, column 6, you’ll be okay.)
The format of the book will be loosely modeled after that of a standard newspaper, not that of a more mathematical tome. I'll proceed through such a generic paper (The Daily EXponent might be an appropriate name) in a more or less linear manner, using it as a convenient lens through which to view mathematically various social concerns and phenomena. Not the least of these are newspapers themselves. 'Me book will begin with section 1 news, including national and international stories, serious articles on politics, war, and economics, and the associated punditry. Then I move on to a variety of local, business, and social issues, then to the self, lifestyle, and soft-news section. After a discussion of reporting on science, medicine, and the environment, I'll conclude with a brief look at various newspaper features such as obituaries, book reviews, sports, advice columnists, top-ten lists, and so on.
Each section of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper is composed of many segments, all beginning with a headline. So as not to fall victim to Janet Cooke's sin, I hereby acknowledge that these headlines are composites, invented to stimulate recall of a number of related headlines (most from 1993 or 1994, but of perennial concern). The segment will consider some of the pertinent underlying mathematics and examine how it helps explicate the story. Occasionally the tone will be debunking, as when I discuss the impossible precision of newspaper recipes that, after vague directions and approximate ingredient amounts, conclude happily that each serving contains 761 calories, 428 milligrams of sodium, and 22.6 grams of fat.
The mathematics will frequently suggest an alternative viewpoint or clarification. Incidence matrices, for example, provide society-page readers with a new tool for conceiving of the connections among the attendees at the Garden Club gala. And complexity theory helps elucidate the idea of the compressibility of a news story and the related notion of one's complexity horizon; some things, it happens, are too complicated for any of us to grasp. On a more prosaic level, claims were recently made that blacks in New York City vote along racial lines more than whites do. The evidence cited was that 95 percent of blacks voted for (black) mayor David Dinkins, whereas only 75 percent of whites voted for (white) candidate (and victor) Rudolph Giuliani. This assertion failed to take into account, however, the preference of most black voters for any Democratic candidate. Assuming t 80 percent of blacks usually vote for Democrats and that only 50 percent of whites usually vote for Republicans, one can argue that only 15 percent of blacks voted for Democrat Dinkins based on race and that 25 percent of whites voted for Republican Giuliani based on race. There are, as usual at the politico-mathematical frontier, countless other interpretations.
In showing up the interplay between mathematics and popular culture, I will digress, amplify, wax curmudgeonly, and muse regularly enough to establish a conversationlike environment, but I'll try not to be too cloying or pontifical in the process. 'Me mathematical expositions, illustrations, and examples will be embedded in a sequence of largely independent news segments and thus, I trust, will not be threatening or off-putting. My aim is to leave the reader with a greater appreciation of the role of mathematics in understanding social issues and with a keener skepticism of its uses, nonuses, misuses, and abuses in the daily paper.
Despite his limited conception of mathematics, Samuel Johnson would have understood the point. Boswell quotes him as saying, 'A thousand stories which the ignorant tell, and believe, die away at once when the computist takes them in his gripe.'
Copyright © 1996-2018 Alexander Bogomolny