A Journalist Checks His Numbers | Stats + Short Stories Episode 40 / by Stats Stories

Alan Schwarz (@alanschwarz) is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist best known for his reportage of public health issues for The New York Times. His 130-article series on concussions in sports is roundly credited with exposing the seriousness of head injuries in the National Football League and all youth athletics. His work was profiled in several films and was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, journalism's highest honor. A subsequent series on A.D.H.D. and other psychiatric disorders in children led to his writing "A.D.H.D. NATION: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma and the Making of an American Epidemic ." He was awarded the 2013 ASA Award for Excellence in Statistical Reporting in recognition of his outstanding work.

+ Full Transcript

John Bailer: I'd like to welcome you to today's Stats and Short Stories episode. Stats and Short Stories is a partnership between Miami University and the American Statistical Association. Today's guest is Alan Schwarz, who is a journalist with a talent for telling interesting stories based on data. I'm John Bailer. I'm Chair of the Department of Statistics at Miami University and I'm joined by my colleague, Richard Campbell, Chair of the Department of Media, Journalism and Film. We're delighted to be speaking to Alan Schwarz on our short episode today. Welcome Alan.

Alan Schwarz: Well, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Bailer: Sure, you've lectured audiences on a variety of topics over the years including mathematics, and journalism and lots of other things. What topics are not being covered because of numeracy skills of the current set of journalists?

Schwarz: I think that because journalists in general are not going to have a particularly sophisticated math or science background…some do but almost none do…I think that a lot of the things that don't get covered are the studies that come out. In a peer review study, published in X Journal ..., such and such was found. And the journalist would typically not read the actual study. They may not even read the abstract. They go by the press release. And there are times, you know, when you are on deadline on whatever, but in general that is a terrible strategy because oftentimes, the study is wrong…or the study was done in such a way that it doesn't support the conclusion either in the abstract or the press release. And so, if the journalist does not have the ability really to parse out the study, okay…it would be wonderful if, for example, the American Statistical Association were to have kind of a hotline where, hey look, if you're doing something on a study and you're not sure you understand it, yes talk to the author and that's great but we'll be able to hook you up with an expert in that particular area who might help you understand the study…might be able to read the study and give you a quote, which is always a wonderful thing…but to help hold your hand, frankly, a little bit. I think that the fear that many journalists have in diving deeper is that they know they can't do it and they don't know who can. And so, they call the author or the author says how smart they are and how perfect the study is and no one ever second guesses it and, or first guesses it in this case. So I would implore the ASA, if they aren't already doing this, to kind of have a hotline for journalists.

Bailer: There is something in place, right now…there's Stats.org, you know, S T A T S dot O R G. One of our guests, Trevor Butterworth, was involved in that.

Schwarz: Oh, I had lunch with Trevor last week.

Bailer: So there is a panel in support of that…of kind of stat experts that are somewhat on call to help with that. But I think your point is really well taken. The idea when you're looking at these articles, if you don't, if you're not careful, what you're tempted to do is read only the press release and the next level is I'll read the introduction and I'll read the discussion. And it takes a while for people that want to dive in and read both the methods and the results in a critical way.

Richard Campbell: I was going to ask you, too, as a general reader, when you're reading other journalists' stories in covering data, what drives you nuts?

Schwarz: What drives me nuts… alright. Well there are little things, perhaps petty, but things like the law of averages or the law of large numbers where they say that the law of large numbers is if you wait long enough something weird happens, which is, of course, the exact opposite of what the law of large numbers truly says. I love it when people say there is something…you know, population is only a fraction of what it once was and I wonder if that fraction is four-thirds. You know, things like that or such and such is growing exponentially, you know, drives me crazy. There was one in the New York Times once where it was something like, the speed at which something was growing higher is accelerating. And I was like, what is that…like the fifth derivative or something…what in the world is that? And I get it. It makes me smile. I don't think it is going to be the downfall of civilization. But in the same way that I passed a parking sign on the street here in New York the other day and it said "park here for events"…and there's an apostrophe before the "s"…and it's just like, oh my God! You know, those are the things that drive me crazy. I think the far more important thing, and disturbing thing but far less addressable, frankly…the scientific study , so-called scientific study that is taken on face value because, two things; one, everything that I have written about and have received credit for having clarified in the public realm and corrected very bad messages that had existed before…all of those things came from scientific studies that had been poorly done or poorly reported. And, so it's a shame we don't have more folks who can do that. And I have yet to read a scientific study or a peer review public study where I didn't find a mistake. Now it could be the spelling of a word, admittedly, but most of the time it was a number that was miscarried or they said it was 69 in one spot and it was 68 in another spot…and up to and including, frankly, fraud. I found outright fraud and reported it in the paper where the conclusion was that there was some correlation between two things and there was obviously no correlation at all and the person knew it. That does drive me crazy. Thankfully, it is a little less frequent.

Bailer: So, let's end on a somewhat positive note. As you reflect back on your career, what do you think journalists are doing better in terms of dealing with data as parts of stories than maybe when you first started?

Schwarz: I think the tools available to us are so much more sophisticated. Even an Excel spreadsheet…I mean imagine the power of that. That didn't really exist twenty years ago. I mean, of course it did on the Apple IIc or whatever, Lotus…but that's not the point. You know, you can run, you can figure out averages, you can figure out highs and lows, you can figure out distributions, so even it you're not a stathead, you're going to have a certain facility that you didn't, otherwise, have. And I think also, with the internet, it is easier to connect with experts than it once was. So I do think that the information revolution, if you will, has made it so much easier to take what you're giving and see if you can make sense of it quickly.

Bailer: Very good. It's been our distinct pleasure to have Alan Schwarz join us on Stats and Short Stories. Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University's Departments of Statistics, and Media, Journalism and Film...and the American Statistical Association. Stay tuned and keep following us on Twitter or Apple Podcast. If you'd like to share your thoughts on our programs, send your emails to statsandstories@miamioh.edu . Be sure to listen for future episodes where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.