Thursday, May 26, 2005

Innumeracy at Time

Another example of bad math in big-time media. It's not a major blunder, but it does create reason to worry about the math skills at Time magazine.

In a recent Time profile of Ariel Sharon's campaign advisor, a reporter wrote,
Sharon, Adler calculated, was too far to the right on the political spectrum to gain broad support. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing the extreme left wing and 5 the far right, Adler figured, Sharon was a 4.7. The winner of every previous election had been a little right of center, Adler judged--somewhere from 2.6 to 3.2.
Note that the midpoint of this scale should be 3, so, per Adler's judgment, prior winners were not "a little right of center" as the article states. Here is a simple chart I created to illustrate the point:

The author's point (that Sharon was relatively far right) would have been stronger had he correctly stated that Adler deemed all prior winners to be centrist with a slight tendency to the left.

Presumably the author incorrectly calculated the midpoint as 2.5 by dividing 5 by 2. Where was the editor?

Update: The article's author is Time's Jerusalem bureau chief Matt Rees (bio here). I'll drop a note to Rees and to Time about this post. I'll let you know if I hear back.

Update: Matt Rees replies: "You're quite right."