Fighting the fear factor

July 1, 2009

Still playing the Feynman Cds – listening to him deliver his lectures brings you closer to his unique way of seeing the world. Such as his definition of gravity – the path of a particle in a gravitional field is that which maximises its (proper) time.

What I enjoy about his presentation is the striking use of a different perspective to drive a point across in a memorable way, without dumbing down or sacrificing precision.

So when we talk about journalism’s basic numeracy toolkit, we don’t have to cast it in overtly mathematical language – an average is a way of using a single figure to characterise an entire group of figures, like an adjective on steroids; a standard deviation is a measure of how spread out a set of measurements are.

It is sometimes the language we use which unnecessarily intimidates our readers or our students. By introducing mathematical concepts  in a non-mathematical vocabularly, the fear factor which inhibits understanding can be lifted.

That’s not to say we should never use the language of maths; it’s often the most effective and economic way of communicating an idea. But we should consider carefully how we frame issues which involve numeracy, so as to de-mystify them: so talk about “rules” for working out percentages, not “formulas” (don’t get me started on the “formulas/formulae” debate!); “recipes” rather than “algorithms”.

I’m thinking about this mainly in the context of teaching journalism students, but the same principle applies to the readership that they will one day be writing for. Just as Stephen Hawking’s publishers famously warned him he would halve his audience for every equation he put in A Brief History of Time (in the end, he couldn’t resist “e=mc2″), readers glaze over when faced with a barrage of figures.

Knowing when to leave figures out, or how to summarise them succinctly, is as important as understanding what the figures mean. As journalists, we are there to do some of the hard work for the reader; simply throwing the numbers at them and saying “Do the maths yourselves” isn’t good enough.

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