Reading the Newspaper like a Mathematician

FCL 2019

Imogen I. Morris

“It’s time to let the secret out: Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us.”

From ‘A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper’ by John Allen Paulos
Slide: The Daily News, A mathematician read a newspaper!

Newspapers and online articles are filled with an attractive, addictive jumble of gossip, headlines, statistics, quotes, tips, life-changing news and celebrities. How do we sort this mess into fact, fiction, or, as I suspect forms the majority, somewhat meaningful half-truths? Making this task harder, is our innate wishful-thinking. As humans, we find it hard to look past our emotions and biases to evaluate articles and arguments in a rational objective way. This is where maths, particularly logic and statistics, can help us. And contrary to common belief, this doesn’t mean we need big calculations, abstraction from reality or number-crunching. Rather, we need to creatively imagine alternative scenarios to encourage a healthy skepticism; we need to puzzle-out mind-boggling statistical paradoxes and we need to use rational-thinking to find a clear path through an otherwise misleading and overcrowded junk-heap of ‘facts’.

 In our workshop for the Festival of Creative Learning 2019, we applied a few simple concepts to analyse a selection of print articles and online articles on current news topics. One of the most useful concepts was the difference between good arguments, which are merely those which are reasonable, and valid arguments, which are those that if you believe the assumptions, you have to believe the conclusion. We are more likely to believe an argument is valid if we believe the assumptions and the conclusion. Can you spot which of the following arguments is valid? 

  1. Tidying our houses means that our possessions are easy to find. Therefore tidying our houses makes us feel better.
  2. Cannibalism is a personal and acceptable choice although it causes harm to people. Therefore it is okay to inflict harm on people.

In the workshop, attendees chose to analyse a varied range of article topics from various sources. The body language of Shamima Begum, the health benefits of pomegranates, a rise in Chinese applications to Scottish universities, antibiotic resistance and a politically-charged article on the SNP investment plan are just a few. Almost universally, we found that the articles appealed to unnamed ‘experts’ for facts, unnamed ‘studies’ for statistics and unnamed ‘critics’ for opinions. Emotionally-charged language such as ‘back-of-a-fag-packet’ or ‘massive ego’ abounded and so did unexplained sciencey-buzzwords e.g. ‘phytochemicals’. The domains of statistics were unspecified. Apparently ‘a quarter of Chinese applications are to Scottish universities’. Is that likely? We believe the author meant ‘out of those to UK universities’. Arguments were never out of a logic textbook, but reconstructing implicit premises and reasoning, we found many that were reasonable. However, particularly the politically charged articles tended to be one-sided, presenting mostly arguments from one side.

Why not have a go at analysing a news article yourself? Here are some tips for conducting a logical and statistics-savvy investigation. Compare your analysis with the way you normally read an article. Do you find that you see flaws in statements that you would usually take on trust?

  • Try to determine the thesis of the article. What are the author’s conclusions? What is being argued for and against?
  • Is this intended to be one person’s opinion or as an objective news article? Has it been clearly labelled as opinion or fact?
  • Search out emotive language. Is it helpful in understanding the feelings of other people, or is it exaggerated and manipulative?
  • Look for counterexamples to every conclusion drawn. If they are outlandish, the conclusion is probably reasonable.
  • Work out the underlying reasoning behind arguments. Once you have found what you think is the general structure, think again whether the argument is reasonable.
  • Look for some reference for every fact (e.g. to a study, expert, book) and evaluate the quality of the reference.
  • Do the statistics make sense? Is the value expected or surprising? Sometimes a news article can present the statistic in different ways to make it seem big or small. For example, they could say ‘1000 people in the UK get disease X every year’ which seems like a lot. Or they could say ‘the chances of anyone getting disease X are 0.0015%’ which seems unbelievably small. But in fact, they are equivalent statements! So think of alternative presentations of the statistic before you decide it is large or small.
  • Are there any implicit assumptions, including stereotypes or assumptions based on our culture?
  • Is the article balanced and fair? Would anyone feel offended by what the article says?
  • Is the headline relatively accurate compared to the actual content of the article?
  • If there are any photographs, visuals and graphs, do they contradict the content of the article? Are they emotive or do they mislead? Have they been accurately labelled and explained?

If you would like to explore this topic further, here are some of the resources I found inspiring when putting this workshop together.

Books

‘A mathematician reads the newspaper’ by John Allen Paulos

‘Logic’ by Wilfred Hodges

Online

Some interesting resources on using argument technology to analyse an ethical debate:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/taster/pilots/moral-maze

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/251N2YBLLwmPJnVvDn94GQR/moral-maze-eight-ways-to-win-an-argument

Collections of spurious correllations:

http://www.tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations

Guide to logical fallacies with examples of politicians making those fallacies:

https://lifehacker.com/spot-the-flaw-in-a-politicians-argument-with-this-guide-1796333209

BBC podcast on spotting statistical fallacies in the news and understanding statistics in our lives:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02nrss1/episodes/downloads

Looking Back at The Dissection of Medical Dramas

The Dissection of Medical Dramas was a fun and interactive workshop that used role-play and popular television medical dramas, such as Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago MED and Scrubs to identify and discuss ethical issues that arise in the medical context. It aimed to enhance the audience’s understanding of the issues.

Dissection of Medical Dramas Poster

The workshop covered various issues, such as:

  • The four governing principles in medical ethics
  • Consent
    • Explicit and implied consent
    • Consent and refusal of consent
    • Informed and valid consent
  • Rights of refusal in relation to competent adult patients
  • Rights of refusal in relation to women in late pregnancy
    • Limits to autonomy in pregnant women
  • Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) Orders
  • Advance Directives/Decisions
  • Children
    • Mature Minors and Gillick Competency
    • Parental refusal
    • Best Interests
  • Mental Capacity
Dissection of Medical Dramas Slide

The audience members were very engaged during the discussion of these matters and raised some extremely relevant and interesting questions, allowing for reflection and consideration of some controversial, topical and emotive issues. Most audience members participated and we had some illuminating discussions as a result of the questions raised by the audience members. This was extremely rewarding and added to the overall value of the experience.

Photo of attendees at Dissection of Medical Dramas

The feedback we received from the audience on our event was very positive. All of the audience members who provided feedback said that they would recommend the event to others and that they learnt something new. Almost all of them said that they found the event to be very useful. Upon reflection of the event, we felt like we would need to better manage our time should we run our event again in the future as we were unable to cover the role-play segment on the day. We had an unexpected, yet welcome, enthusiastic and highly engaged audience that raised several questions and issues after each clip. It was more important to have audience engagement than cover everything we had planned, however, in future we aim to better prepare for this so the audience gets to experience both segments, while ensuring that they can still be actively engaged.

Furthermore, the event might have benefited from a different room as the lighting, which would not turn off, reduced the quality of the images and video clips we showed.  The room boasted terrific views of the coast line and the Firth of Forth, but unfortunately the window blinds had to be drawn.  Another feature that could be considered should we run the event in the future would be acquiring a smaller, more intimate space as this one was quite big, making the number of audience members look smaller.  Some people mentioned that the room itself was not the easiest to find and possibly a more easily accessible room would increase numbers.

This experience has nevertheless been amazing and certainly highly rewarding. The event has had a great impact as shown by the positive feedback we received and we have also been approached by members of staff to discuss our event with the purpose of sharing it with others.

Zahra Jaffer and Lynn Kennedy

LLC Blethers

Image of Veronica Vivi, this year's LLC Blethers Lead Organiser
Veronica Vivi is this year’s LLC Blethers Lead Organiser

LLC Blethers has once again been part of the Festival of Creative Learning and it has been a success! Looking back at the months of organising and planning that preceded the event, I can say that LLC Blethers was a team effort and that the hard work paid off. 

LLC Blethers is an evening of a series of lightning talks, where presenters support their presentation with 20 slides each lasting 20 seconds. The format requires fast talking, confident presentation skills, good timing and the ability to engage with the public while delivering more or less complex and academic topics. The series of talks is then evaluated by a jury formed by Edinburgh University staff and/or members who will decide the overall best presentation and will also award different prizes for other categories (such as ‘best use of the format’, ‘most creative’, and so on). This year we had the pleasure to be joined by Michelle Keown, Alan Binnie, Miriam Gamble and Niki Holzapfel. 

The event took place at The Counting House as we always strive to organise the event at an informal venue to promote students and staff to mingle in a context outside university which fosters communication and interpersonal relations. 

The plethora of presenters who joined us this year and which were selected through a Call for Presentations earlier in January were from the Postgraduate community in LLC and they all did a superb job at crafting and presenting their talks. We had the chance to display a variety of interests and academic research, from table-top role-playing games about climate change, to a feminist overview on banning the Disney princesses, to how to make a movie on a micro-budget. 

No less importantly, the event would not have been the same without the support of local businesses who kindly offered prizes and vouchers for the winning presentations. 

You can find more about LLC Blethers at http://llcblethers.weebly.com.