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Cracked.com > Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times

David Christopher Bell goes to the trouble (link from Palko) to explain why “Every Map of ‘The Most Popular _________ by State’ Is Bullshit.”

As long as enterprising P.R. firms are willing to supply unsourced data, lazy journalists (or whatever you call these people) will promote it.

We saw this a few years ago in a Wall Street Journal article by Robert Frank (not the academic economist of same name) that purported to give news on the political attitudes of the super-rich but really was actually just credulously giving reporting unsubstantiated statements from some consulting company.

And of course we saw this a couple years ago when New York Times columnist David Brooks promoted some fake statistics on ethnicity and high school achievement.

I get it: journalism is hard work, and sometimes a reporter or columnist will take a little break and just report a press release or promote the claims of some political ideologue. It happens. But I don’t have to like it.

12 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Armatures fake data. Professionals fake assumptions.

  2. Rahul says:

    Google trends, Google N Grams & Google search auto complete seem to be the oft abused tools to draw iffy conclusions.

  3. Ken Williams says:

    I agree that such maps aren’t exactly hard-hitting journalism, but Bell has no such “explanation” to offer. He merely tries out one methodology he thinks the maps might be using, notices it doesn’t match, and then declares the whole thing to be bullshit.

    I’m sure you would agree there are many different ways to find associations in a bipartite graph of states vs. products/dogs/whatever, depending on what you’re interested in finding. It would be nice if the mapmakers would publish their algorithms, but it’s just idle plotviz, so I’m not really surprised the algorithms aren’t provided.

    Personally I think a good project assignment for a student would be “take this state-based data set and make several of those plots”, and discuss what types of analysis would be appropriate to answer different questions about the data.

  4. zbicyclist says:

    I don’t know what methodology they use, but here’s what I’d do.

    I’d index each state’s mentions to the average.
    I’d look at different categories of words (travel, food, etc) so I have some choices.
    I’d look at Google trends, but also at other sources. Maybe do a survey of five friends, or job applicants in the lobby.
    If we wanted more sophistication, we could follow Ken Williams’ line of thinking and use some of those different ways.
    So, for each state, I’d have maybe 7 choices.
    I’d pick the funniest / most interesting from these. After all, this is clickbait, and the science is getting eyeballs, not getting knowledge.

  5. Thanks, Andrew. I laughed very hard at the “clown dick” map.

    I also am pretty sure that David Letterman had the (probably at the time former) editor in chief of the National Enquirer on his show in the late 1980s. He explained that the stories they printed were “true” in the sense that they really did have a source. The trick was just never to corroborate it. So it was “journalism”, but at the lowest possible standard, ensuring sensationalism. In science, we might recall Heidegger’s terse remark: “The standards of [source] criticism alter to the degree that historiography approaches journalism.”

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    How many Robert Franks are there? Half Sigma listed three in the public eye:

    http://halfsigma.typepad.com/half_sigma/2009/10/robert-frank-at-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art.html

    It would be interesting to do an index of the fairly common first and last names that are most over-represented in high-end blogs relative to their rates among the general public.

    In Britain (according to Gregory Clark), Hamiltons attend Oxbridge at twice the rate of the average surname. That’s pretty amazing for such a common surname, but then again there are just a giant number of prominent Hamiltons down through history. Freemans and Wilsons are also overrepresented.

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