100% chance

On the 29th of April 2016 The Times published the following article:

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A cynical scientist would immediately say that this is the usual fallacy at work: collect data, find a correlation, and then assume that causation works in the direction that gets you more citations, more press coverage, better headlines and bigger research grants. After all (he would say) what is more reasonable than that the sort of person who is too feeble to cope with life and retires early to relieve the strain is also the sort of person who will die sooner than the rest of us?

In this case the scientist would be wrong. The lie here is much more obvious than that.

What chance does the Editor of The Times have of dying? It does not take a medical examination to prove that it is 100%.

What chance do you have of dying? It is 100%.

I am also 100% certain to die.

What the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, as reported by The Times, is saying is that some people are different from us. They either have an 11% smaller chance of dying – 89% chance of death, 11% of living for ever – or an 11% greater chance, making them more than certain to die. Interesting, but also nonsensical.

The Times is a paper of record. What The Times says is true. When kings die, they do it in The Times.

With authority comes responsibility. This means not printing obvious nonsense. And in this case there is no excuse, because even the proverbial “Arts graduate intern” knows that death comes to us all. The only reason for publishing an article dominated by an obvious false statement – even if the article is a short one – is cynical contempt for the reader. Anything at all will do, as long as it fills the space.

10 – 1 = 8

Alexandra Frean, the education editor of The Times, states today that

There is… a strong feeling among ministers that, in maths, targets are not exacting enough and should be brought forward by a year, to enable children to tackle more complex calculations by the age of 8 rather than 10.

It is not clear whether this “complex calculation” of 10-1=8 has been made by Government ministers or by The Times.

The New Age of news-gathering: a test

A year ago this morning, seven bombs exploded in London: three on the Tube and four on buses.

A year ago this afternoon, the story was corrected. Four bombs had exploded in London: three on the Tube and one on a bus. The bombs had exploded at intervals over a period of about an hour.

The explanation for that change is straightforward: the telegraphic “four bombs – three on Tube” being expanded to “four bombs plus three on the Tube” rather than “four bombs of which three on the Tube”. In the chaos and horror of that time, this is entirely understandable.

On Friday 8 July, the bombs had exploded at intervals over a period of about an hour.

On Saturday 9 July, the bombs had exploded at intervals over a period of about an hour. The newspapers had double-page spreads with sketch maps showing the time at which each bomb had exploded across London.

On Sunday 10 July, the bombs had exploded virtually simultaneously (apart from the one in the bus). That has been the story ever since.

If this had all happened ten years ago, this would not be very interesting: mistakes happen, and they get corrected in the end. But ten years ago most people didn’t have email and no-one had a blog.

Today it is different. Today, we are told, the Internet is pullulating with bloggers, discussion forums, chat rooms, and personal web pages. Today, we are told, misinformation is no sooner promulgated than it is squashed flat by the democratic mass of individual gatherers and propagators of news: every man his own journalist. Today, we are told, the new media of the web can drive the news agenda and the old media – print and broadcast alike – can only follow where they lead.

So what really happened on 8 and 9 July? Was the blogosphere so stunned by the events that it didn’t do its job of checking the facts? There were hundreds – thousands – of eye-witnesses of these events. Did none of them have access to texts or email? Or was a consensus reached early on, which the Old Media journalists simply ignored?

Before we spend too much time trumpeting how the gathering and dissemination of news has been changed for ever by the Internet, it might be worth seeing why the new age of news-gathering failed one of its first really big tests.