Numbers and News

A long-time friend of mine sent me a hyperlink to a news quiz authored by the Pew Research Center. It’s a simple, easy-to-take 12-question quiz that tests one’s ability to recognize current news topics. Click here and take it for your own edification.

Personally, I thought the quiz was a cake-walk; I scored a perfect 12 correct answers. However, I’m a virtual news junkie.

In addition to my home state newspaper (The News Journal), I read the daily editions of USA Today, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. In addition to these news sources, I randomly monitor cable news, specifically, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. And none of this includes the research I do over the Internet.

So I’m not deserving of any praise for completing a super-easy 12-item news quiz. But what makes this particular quiz a standout is the statistical results breakdown upon completion.

Pew compares a taker’s score to a national average score. It then compares an individual taker’s responses to myriad local and national demographic groups.

So, while I scored better than 90% of the takers across the country, the comparison of my score to myriad local demographic scores indicates to me that hordes of people have no clue about what’s actually happening in this country.

Now, about NUMBERS. It has been my experience that more people hate dealing with them than don’t, unless the numbers concern averages; at which point they become hyper-sensitive.

But here’s the thing; contrary to popular confusion, there is nothing absolute about the term “average;” it’s a measure of relativity. But for some reason, people are generally comfortable with being at or above average.

Tell them that they’re BELOW average—even slightly below—and they become uncomfortable in a hurry.

But whatever you do, don’t confuse things by calling the average the MEAN, which it is, or discussing weighted averages. And don’t even bring up the mean’s cousin, the median.

I happen to know my own IQ; it’s above average, but putting the actual score into proper relative perspective, it’s not ALWAYS above average. Depending on any given group of people with whom I’m comparing myself, it may well be below average.

Even at a Mensa meeting—I’m not a member and have no interests in being one—there is a-dumbest-person-in-the-room. And that person may well be ME, my above average IQ notwithstanding.

Dealing with percentages is another numbers area capable of reducing even the bravest soul to a stammering idiot.

Every Friday morning, I go to the Boothwyn Farmers Market. And I usually stop at TJ’s Grill N Chill for a large order of French Fries and a medium soda. TJ’s are truly the best fries in the market.

Anyway, the market is in Pennsylvania, which has a state sales tax of 6%. As well, cities and myriad other municipalities may add their own sales tax on top of this. Boothwyn adds an additional .05%.

Seated next to me at TJ’s counter were two young males in their late teens trying to figure out the total for their bill before they ordered. Everyone seated around them could hear the conversation. They were a little short on money, and they wanted to make sure they had enough to pay the bill.

They couldn’t do it . . . the problem? They could not figure out that the decimal equivalent of 6.05% is .0605 and NOT .605! I was embarrassed for both of them; so I showed them how to do it.

Both of these teens were very nice pwoplw. They not only thanked me for my help; they appeared to have learned something for the very first time.

And while I believe that they probably won’t forget how to reduce percentages to their decimal equivalents, I still have to wonder how in the blazes they made it out of elementary school, let alone high school.

I’ll stop now. I won’t even bring up the trauma some people incur relative to calculating percentage increases and decreases. Or the need for others to use a cellphone calculator to figure a 20% tip on a $23.80 dinner check.

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