Why Technobrat Pundits Drive Me Nuts

Well, there are a lot of reasons why, but this takedown of Dylan Matthews sums it up nicely (boldface mine):

Matthews, a fresh-out-of-Harvard writer for Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog at the Post, is one of a new breed of journalists: the young, bean-counting, charts-and-graphs-obsessed, policy geek. Mostly found on the left side of the political spectrum, their ranks include Slate’s Matt Yglesias, the New York Times’ Nate Silver, and, of course, Klein himself. They don’t usually crunch the numbers themselves (the poll-model-building Silver’s an exception). Instead they report on those that do, from a perilous perch somewhere between academic objectivity and issue advocacy.

Here’s where they run into trouble. They’re not academics—nor do they claim to be—but their job is to distill economic and poli-sci jargon into understandable, policy-relevant bite-sized chunks. And problems arise when they get it wrong—whether due to a lack of understanding of statistics, misrepresentation of the studies they cite, or, in Matthews’ case, both….

After reading that, I, and I imagine other people, wrote in privately to point out that standard deviation is a measure of dispersion that says nothing about what might have caused the scores to vary.

The last sentence from that paragraph was later redacted. “This post has been updated to clarify some of the statistical findings summarized,” reads a note at the top of the article page.

This obfuscates the problem. This was not a confusing definition that could have been written more clearly. It was completely wrong: saying a statistical measure tells us something it does not, and that a study made a finding that it did not.

All of this would be moot if Matthews were simply stating his opinion that he doesn’t like teachers’ unions….

However, Matthews and his ilk are not that kind of old school op-ed crank. They’re wonks and proud of it. They don’t use florid metaphors or tug at the heartstrings. They give you spreadsheets, pie charts, and regression tables. The numbers speak for themselves. Except sometimes when bloggers speak for them.

What pisses me off about these guys (and they’re all men, by the way) is their willingness to misuse weapons of math destruction to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted, even though they often get the math wrong.

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2 Responses to Why Technobrat Pundits Drive Me Nuts

  1. Carl Weetabix – Geneva, Switzerland – Carl Weetabix is a pseudonym for someone else. While the one who would be called Carl would love to use his own identity, the reality of the world suggests otherwise. Carl would hope that any other who lives in this increasingly mad world would understand. Carl is like everyone else, including those who would claim otherwise, of no import. Nonetheless he is a Senior Fellow at the RUTROW.org Institute. Carl believes this exactly as much value as any other "think tank" Senior Fellowship. Carl by modern terms would be described as a "raving liberal" and proud of it. In more sane times Carl would be considered a moderate. Carl has many conservative friends and even family and despite often disagreeing, thinks not only are they good people, but sometimes have their points - it's when you get to those steering the boat that Carl has his real issues, but this is true of many "liberals" as well. Carl sometimes gets angry and says unkind things. Carl hopes that readers will understand that this is just natural human expression. Carl understands however that unkind things might make others similarly inclined to be unkind, but Carl hopes that like his expression, theirs will remain limited to the realm of words. Carl loves all fuzzy animals, and not just for breakfast.
    Carl Weetabix says:

    “comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted”

    Gonna have to remember that one…

  2. Pingback: Attention Span, Context, and Science Journalism | Mike the Mad Biologist

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