Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Daily Telegraph's total lack of numeracy is an embarrassment and national disgrace.

Here's a screen grab of a headline in today's Telegraph:

The headline reads: "Pound drops as figures reveal 'unsustainable' current account  deficit.

Yes, that deficit is a national disgrace, given it's a Conservative Chancellor who  has failed abysmally at his task of reining it in. But this is not about the failure of our political class to get a grip on events.It's about our media and its failure to handle the most elementary numerical data, providing textbook examples day in, day out, of how NOT to present and interpret statistical data.

So how much has the pound dropped as a consequence of Chancellor Osborne's lax management of the nation's finances? How does it compare with the 50% drop in the value of the Russian rouble against the dollar this last year (yup, 50% no less)? Is it 5%? Or a mere 1%?  Read on, and prepare to be underwhelmed.

Here's the key sentence in the article under that headline:

The sentence (highlighted in my yellow) reads:   "The news sent the pound down to $1.555, having opened at $1.559".

Visual aid?  Just in case the reader is incapable of visualizing a decrease of 4 parts per 1559...  stand by for a truly cretinous graph (with  apologies  to cretins everywhere, most of whom are probably streets ahead in cognitive skills relative to the Telegraph's financial journalists and sub-editors):

Just look at the way that vertical y axis has been expanded, so as to run from 1.555 (minimum) to 1.561 (maximum) thereby magnifying tiny differences in exchange rate, fully within the range of day-to-day variation - being a change of just 0.257%.  I repeat: a mere 0.257%. That's about one quarter of one percent.

Look too at the time scale, running from 22 December (yesterday!) to 23 December (today). What an abortion! What a total travesty of statistics.

Just a one-off? Just a momentary lapse on the part of the Telegraph?  Nope. A more egregious example certainly, but in no way atypical. This kind of mindless treatment of numerical data has been appearing on the Telegraph with ever-more growing frequency over the last year or so.  Why? Are its journalists and sub-editors really so innumerate?  Maybe, maybe not. What seems probable is that any kind of sloppiness is tolerated in the interests of click-bait journalism. That's despite the fact the the Telegraph is now behind a paywall, at least after the first 20 free clicks. That's not all. It's one of those sites that freezes one's laptop for a minute or more while it retrieves data on one's internet activity via its cookies. Shoddy and disreputable. They do it because it's technically possible. Never mind right and wrong.

2015 may well be the year when this blogger waves goodbye to the UK's more obnoxious MSM sites, the Telegraph especially, and returns to reading books.

Postscript: Here's a screen shot of tomorrow's Telegraph, courtesy of Sky News:

There's a new headline, lower left:

It reads: "Christmas holiday makers suffer as pound takes another dive."

Garbage. The pound has been in gentle decline against the US dollar for many months. Nothing exceptional or newsworthy has happened in the last 24 hours.

Here's the BBC's chart showing sterling's decline against the dollar over the last 3 months:

Repeat: nothing exceptional has happened recently.

Update, Wed, 24th December

Have just spotted this comment under the article - from a kindred spirit.

To be fair, it's just a badly researched article trying to make something out of nothing e.g. a large scaled graph showing nothing more than a daily exchange rate fluctuation (no different to any other day), a revision which is actually quite small and de-emphasising the growth forecast for the current period which remains unchanged. Only the DT can make a story out of pretty much nothing. It was a slow news day...
That said, Osborne is incompetent and a magnificent liar.

Update: Saturday 3rd January 2015

Despite stern admonitions from your blogger, the Telegraph continues to hype modest changes in currency exchange rates. This time it's sterling against the lame-duck euro, which is currently its lead story no less:

Yup, "Holiday Windfall" it reads, for we Brits as value of euro slides.

In fact, the exchange rate has improved over the last 12 months (as sterling has declined against the dollar over the same period), but only by 5%, hardly worth writing home about on one's holiday postcard from Spain (with its 50% youth unemployment rate) or Greece (an economic basket case if ever there was).

Click to ENLARGE

Cheap holiday? It's not 5% here or there that makes a holiday cheap. It's going to the budget airline sites, clicking on the cheapest destinations for one's chosen dates, availing oneself of any cut price deals on hotel accommodation and car hire, eating one's main meal at midday instead of evening etc etc.  But then everyone knows that, or should do, with the exception it seems of the DT's financial journalists who unwisely attempt to combine that role with self-appointed "consumer advisor".

Update: Feb 21

Have just posted this to Colin Randall's Salut! site. Yup, the DT's Finance staff  continue to trash simple arithmetic, simply for the sake of a click-bait headline.

ColinB said... 

The exchange rate of the Danish krone against the euro has moved from 7.445 to 7.465 approx in the last 24 hours. According to the FT's Finance department, the value of the euro has "soared" against the krone, and just in case you have doubts on that score, we have been given a graph to prove it in a current front page article:


The graph has an expanded scale, needless to say, which magnifies the tiniest change.

This gross arithmetical illiteracy is not an isolated occasion. Precisely the same mistake in reading tiny shifts in exchange rates was made just before Christmas, when commenting on dollar-sterling exchange rates, one I felt obliged to headline on my own site, despite it being ostensibly a science blog. Google Telegraph lack numeracy Dec 23 2014 and ye shall find.

This is appalling! The DT's so-called Finance journalists are making a laughing stock of us all, based as they are in what is supposed to be the world's major finance centre.

Further update: I'm not the only one to have noticed the gaffe.

But why bother commenting on the DT site?  With few exceptions, the DT's staff writers never look 'below the line'. If they did, these kinds of errors might not be happening with such monotonous regularity.

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