Sunday, February 1, 2009

The skeptical reader

Some people may be smart but readily fall prey to learning things that aren't true. Like that split-infinitive (or more generally split-verb) nonsense -- which is what you get when a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals try to impose a restriction that is inherent in Latin onto English (where it has never belonged) and as a result make beautiful writing ugly. It infects even relatively intelligent people, and Steven Pinker gives a good argument that it may be what made Justice Roberts stumble when administering the presidential oath.

And it's not just language you have to be skeptical about. No less a body than the National Endowment for the Arts writing gushingly about literacy (pdf), fibs to us in graphical form:

Three years at the left hand end takes up almost as much room as six years at the right hand end! The aim is to make the upslope at the end look twice as strong as it really should - to give stronger support to their claim that "this dramatic turnaround shows that the many programs now focused on reading, including our own Big Read, are working". (Lied to by a federal agency? Whodathunkit?) Now if they're willing to fudge the graph, really, how much can you trust that they haven't massaged the figures? Kevin Drum is completely taken in, reproducing the glaring fib with nary an indication he even noticed he was being lied to. There's something about graphical lies that tends to slip under the radar. Watch out!

Over at Understanding Uncertainty, Horace (David Spiegelhalter) looks at studies that say (among other things) that street lighting reduces fatal-injury road crashes by a huge amount. It was taken up by the media, leading to sensationalist headlines. Firstly, based on the quoted figures, the number in the press release was plain wrong (it's 65% not 77%), but various sources of bias lead to this smaller figure being an overestimate, and possibly a very dramatic overestimate. But that won't stop the media in search of a beat-up!

On the topic of things to be skeptical about, the BBC reports that a government-funded books project has edited the famous shanty What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?, though the charity running the project say it has "absolutely nothing to do with political correctness"; they claim the alteration to "grumpy pirate" was to make the rhyme fit a pirate theme, rather than censorship. Now I'm all for pirate themes ... but why then not "drunken pirate"? Is this another media beat-up, or political correctness run amok? Or even a little of both? Go read the story and the explanation given by the charity and decide for yourself. I'd give 'em both a skeptical eye.


Blake Stacey said...

As I said at Kevin Drum's blog post:

1. I wanna see a survey which tells us whether people who read Harry Potter books go on to read anything else. I mean, I guess one book is better than none. . . well, maybe not if that one book is The Purpose-Driven Life or The Secret. . . Well, anyway, more information please!

2. The report says, "A decline in both reading and reading ability was clearly documented in the first generation of teenagers and young adults raised in a society full of videogames, cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other electronic devices." Apple launched the iPod line on 23 October 2001, essentially at the point when the "percentage of 18-24-year-olds" line starts going up. Teenagers are far more immersed in wireless this and wiki that than their counterparts were in 2001. Doesn't look like the rise of the Omnipresent Network has hurt, does it?

Teacherninja said...

Those NEA guys are always putting out suspect numbers about reading. It's gotten to the point I dismiss their findings out of hand. Thanks for the critical scrutiny.

Blake Stacey said...

Also, the vertical axis does not start at zero, which makes all fluctuations look bigger. Sometimes, this is legitimate, but here. . . ?

(CAPTCHA for today: bresock. If that's not a word, it should be.)

george.w said...

It's difficult to tell how fine-grained the data is (or much of anything else) from this chart, but Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was released in the US in September 1998. The rest of the curve may simply be following the release of that series.

(Certainly easier to believe than that some NEA program has thrown open the doors of literacy for kids)