Saturday, 2 July 2011

94% of broadcasters bandy statistics

There is a 96% probability that this post was inspired by the current trend for rolling news coverage to back up 87% of assertions with statistics. (While there is an 84% chance that the preceding statistic was fabricated as a way of starting this post. In the words of Oscar Wilde “You can’t believe everything that you read on the internet.”)

It seems that it’s now impossible for televised debate to take place without absurd comparisons to underscore arguments. It’s not valid simply to discuss the impacts of industrial action – any contributor must be able to authoritatively assert that ‘Using the money that was lost during today’s industrial action, the government could have bought 52 dialysis machines, or a mass of rubber ducks equivalent to the weight of Eamonn Holmes’. It’s absurd, but goes completely unchallenged.

Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams do not bat an eyelid as an interviewee suggests that “If the London Underground were adapted to run on sixty thousand hamsters tethered to the front of each train instead of electricity, TfL could afford to rent one sixtieth of the Sydney Opera House”. Fiona Bruce and George Alagiah nod knowingly to each disjointed, incongruous factoid, as if to validate it. Juxtaposing two ideas does not make them relevant!

Taking things to their (il)logical conclusion, one might expect a report on pensions in five to ten years time to consist of commentators starting with clauses such as;“If no-one in the UK wore sunglasses on Tuesdays”, “If we all agreed to use a single hyphen rather than one of those extended double hyphens” or “If we imagine a penguin eating Weetabix” (which I personally think is a rather lovely mental image).

This sort of nonsensical comparison isn’t exclusive to the realm of current affairs. For years, physicists have been using the standard units of distance “the length of a blue whale”, “the height of a double-decker bus”, and the oft-cited “size of an Olympic swimming pool”. The units of weight (or, more accurately, mass, if there are physicists reading) don’t fare much better. An elephant. A bag of sugar. A fully-loaded 747.*

As the adage goes, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them**’. Accordingly, I’ve had a go at devising my own arbitrary units for the measurement of distance. There are two pencils in an owl, four owls in every shelf, and two shelves to an Ian Duncan Smith. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just seen a press-release stating that 89% of online audiences stop reading articles after 480 words. So I think I’ll stop writing.... now.

* That was a strange shopping list.

** As the adage goes after finding a thesaurus, ‘if you can’t vanquish them, co-operate with them’. As the adage goes after being fed through Google translate from Albanian to Finnish and back into English “If you can not win them to Hi’self". I digress.

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