Numbers: Commentary by Dr. Larry Burriss

Larry Burriss, a professor in Middle Tennessee State University's College of Mass Communication and president of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame, welcomes the crowd before the induction ceremonies at the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters conference in Murfreesboro for the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

by Dr. Larry Burriss


     I was reading in the sports pages the other day how a football team was a 7.5- point favorite. Now, just stop to think about that for a moment: 7.5 points. How in the world do you score half a point in football? Maybe the handicappers will allow you a half point if a field goal attempt bounces off the goal post.
     Obviously, this doesn’t make any sense.
     But it just goes to show how often the news media get the right numbers and then reach the wrong conclusion.

Mark Twain
     Mark Twain once said, “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”
     And just what does that mean? Well, by way of example, it was reported back in 1938 the U.S. population would never reach 140-million. It reached 150-million only 12 years later. And today it stands at something more than 331-million.
     Often we read news stories making predictions based on current estimates: So try this set of numerical fun facts: In 1977, the year Elvis Presley died, there were 170 Elvis impersonators. In 2015 there were an estimated 85-thousand. Which must mean by the end of this year more than one-third of the world’s population will be Elvis impersonators. I can hardly wait.
     When these numbers are then used with incomplete statements of fact, the results can be truly alarming, and lead us to a distorted view of the world. For instance, we read a lot about the thousands of children who are kidnapped each year. What that statement doesn’t tell you is most kidnappings of children are done by the non-custodial parent, not by strangers The actual number of true child kidnappings is about 200 each year.
     So perhaps we need to go back to what economist John Maynard Keynes said in the 1930s: “It’s better to be roughly right, than precisely wrong.”
     So, on average, I’m Larry Burriss.