Monday, May 25, 2009

Looking after the pennies ...

One of my all-time favourite journalism books is Prof John Paulos' 'A Mathematician Reads the Newspapers', a sometimes quirky review of the way journalists pass on their misunderstanding of numbers to their readers.

I was reminded of this when reading Stuart Glendinning Hall's post on how to pay special attention to your top community contributors which reports on an HP Labs study which, in turn, concludes that people's propensity to keep participating increases with the more they contribute. The paper demonstrates that submitters who stop receiving attention tend to stop contributing, while prolific contributors attract an ever increasing number of followers and their attention in a feedback loop.

Well, anyway, that's what the paper claims.

The conclusion is interesting - if perhaps a little predictable - but it was the mathematical computations that led to the conclusions which brought Prof Paulos' book to mind. The learned prof argues that journalists' grasp of fairly simple maths is so poor that articles are often riddled with ridiculous mistakes. While that is undoubtedly true, the HP Labs documents shows conversely that mathematicians and other experts often make lousy communicators and they usually need a journalist to misunderstand the maths, but get the message across!

Stuart doesn't give away a lot about himself in his online profile, but his post reads as if he understands the maths behind the HP paper. Me? I read the paper, but skipped the maths which lost me in the first few lines!

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