Innumerates of the Times of India

Those who refuse to do arithmetic are doomed to speak nonsense. That one is a favorite quote from a computer science guru John McCarthy. To it I would add that those who are incapable of reasoning are doomed to being innumerate. The ability to reason is a prerequisite for knowing how to do arithmetic. Let me give you a shining example of innumeracy arising from an inability to reason.

The article headline summaries the point that the writer was trying to make: “Tier II, III cities power nation’s growth.” And the evidence for that conclusion? Certainly not to be found anywhere in the article.

Small towns are churning out big news. Unbelievable as it may sound, people from BIMARU regions are making more money, in turn, fuelling the nation’s economic resurgence.

According to latest Income Tax (I-T) data, economic powerhouses Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata have lost out to Patna, Lucknow, Meerut, Chandigarh, Kanpur and Kochi in net personal I-T (PIT) mop up.

None of the metros, barring Bangalore, figure in the top 10 cities that have posted highest growth in personal I-T collection during the April-July 2010 period as compared to the same period in 2009.

The highest growth (95%), among all regions, has been posted by Bihar and Jharkhand followed by Purvanchal or eastern UP, where collection shows an increase of 91%.

Meerut, or western UP region (51%), is third on the list, followed by Bangalore (50%); Chandigarh (41%); Kanpur (40%); Guwahati (23%); Pune and Kochi (22%) and Nagpur (18%). In comparison, the growth of PIT in megapolises like Delhi and Mumbai have been a paltry 4% and 6%, respectively. {Emphasis added.}

The writer includes a painful list of growth rates but nowhere in the article even bothers to indicate the bases on which the growth rates are computed. I am certain that he does not even understand why comparison of growth rates are meaningless without the bases. I am sure he has no idea that there’s a distinction between stocks and flows.

Sure it is better to have a higher growth rate than a lower growth rate of positive indicators such as life expectancy, or income or whatever. But one cannot conclude anything of importance from comparing growth rates alone. Here’s a concocted example.

Ethiopia and Zambia have trumped the most developed richest nations in terms of growth of life expectancy at birth in the last decade. Life expectancy grew at a phenomenal 38 percent in Ethiopia and a mercurial 64 percent in Zambia. Compare that to Switzerland (2 percent), the US (2 percent), and Denmark’s anemic 1 percent. The conclusion that Ethiopians and Zambians contribute more to the overall health of the global population than the developed countries is inescapable.

What’s missing is the information that the life expectancy at birth in the developed countries is around 80 years and that of the poorest, hardest hit by AIDS and such countries is around 30 years. (All numbers are for illustrative purposes only and are not claimed accurate.)

It may appear that I am needlessly nitpicking. But actually this sort of innumeracy and illogic among the general public is dangerous in a democracy. People vote based on their understanding of what is happening around them. If they cannot reason out the implications of policies — most of which are to some degree quantifiable — they will make the wrong choices.

Though much of the policy errors are the result of self serving myopia of the politicians and bureaucrats, I would not be surprised that some of it arises out of innumeracy.

The editors of the Times of India clearly are innumerate in this instance. That is why they end up publishing nonsense.

7 thoughts on “Innumerates of the Times of India

  1. It is the similar statistics when indian media reports that IIMs are more selective than top 10 US schools. They dont realize that anyone with probably 55% in any discipline can take CAT exam where as people with even 720-730 GMAT think twice before sending application to H/W/S.

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  2. If you ask me, TOI and its readership are made for each other.
    Utterly inane comments, ad hominem attacks, baseless statements without a shred of supporting evidence, and let’s not forget the jingoists who rejoice on seeing a headline proclaiming India as a ‘superpower’.

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  3. Dear Atanu,

    It looks like most newspapers have headline writers separate from content writers. They consider that headlines are meant to be attractive even if it not relevant to the the content.

    Also content writing aka story writing in newspaper parlance is generally story writing in literal sense. So we should read them for comic relief and not take it seriously.

    But educating the mass readers is very important so that they do not get half baked understanding.

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  4. The Times of India had some content and standards once upon a time. Now the newspaper is run by the marketing people whose aim is to sell the most amount of newspapers, even if that means degrading content, just as Bollywood sells movies of incredibly low content to appeal to the crudest and most vulgar tastes to make more $$. Also it is dependent on government ads for income it appears to me; hence this explains the booklicker attitude.

    Also the real news in India is so depressing, so I guess the English newspapers are incapable of dealing with it as are most Indians, so they are a good escape from reality for people, as tabloids are meant to be.

    I suppose most of the English Indian newspapers just reflect the crude standards in India which permeate everything these days which is only getting cruder.

    Is India even capable of showing iron discipline in any field of endeavour these days? When the politically powerful classes are made of the basest and crudest and semi-literate and most of the population apathetic sheep…. the entire nation ultimately becomes crude and degraded in their culture. A slavish population also produces a culture fit for slaves not free.

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