Numbing down

Numbing down: The art of playing with numbers in order to make things seem to be what they are not.

I guess many of you, like me, wonder “How did they do that?” when looking at something novel and unusual. It’s good to be curious.

As against this, do you ever wonder “How could they possibly know that?” when you trip over statistical references? I do, and it is a source of frequent frustration for me. We live in an age of spin, and battles are fought not just with words, not just with pictures, but with numbers as well. Presidents and Prime Ministers justify what they do with statistics and polls, and much of what is behind the numbers is complex. That is, if you accept “complex” as a valid synonym for Lies and Damned Lies.

Which is why I’m such a big fan of John Allen Paulos. It’s been many years since I first read Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. Douglas Hofstadter, when reviewing the book nearly two decades ago, said:

Our society would be unimaginably different if the average person understood the ideas in this marvelous and important little book.

I was hooked from the first anecdote on the first page:

“Two aristocrats are out horseback riding and one challenges the other to see which can come up with the larger number. The second agrees to the contest, concentrates for a few minutes, and proudly announces ‘Three’. The proposer of the game is quiet for half an hour, then finally shrugs and concedes defeat.”

Read it for yourself, it’s worth it.

It is in this context that I’m delighted to see that Anant Rangaswami has started a blog about media and advertising in India, and related matters. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.

In these days of citizen journalism, much has been written, much has been said, about authenticity and relevance and integrity in blogs and podcasts and video phenomena. Much of the pushback has come from MSM. Anant is someone who really understands what makes the media sector in India tick. The sector is important to all of us, but even more so because the learning he exhibits is in India. The sheer scale of the middle class there, the endless variety they have in the touch spaces between media and entertainment and sport and politics (is there a difference between the last two? I’m no longer sure…).

So welcome, Anant, I look forward to bigger and richer conversations.

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