Thursday, October 17, 2013

Comparing apples and Babe Ruth's batting record

Conan O'Brien talked about how the new GTA5 video game has made more money already than any book sold in the last year.  He jokes about how J. K. Rowling ought to make a murder and mayhem themed Harry Potter book to cash in on some kind of theoretical be a gangsta phase.

I get that Conan is just trying to make a joke but it really bothers me when people make these sorts of comparisons because some of those viewing them really don't get why it isn't remotely useful to make them.  If comparing a single novel to GTA5 is useful perhaps we ought to compare the net profit on an international oil firm and a local bakery?  GTA5 was not created by a single person writing for a few months or a year, but rather the product of huge numbers of people over many years.  A game of the scope of GTA5 is made at most once a week(?), while new books are published at a rate of 700 per day.  Now, if somebody wanted to calculate the return on capital invested into GTA5 vs. particular books I would be vaguely interested and I suspect that books would handily top that list since the biggest hit books cost little more for initial production than the flops.

Stepping aside from that particular example though I feel like this is a real issue with the way news is passed on to the masses.  Clearly if you want a hard, rational reporting of issues you shouldn't be trying to get it from Conan (and I like Conan, that isn't a slam!) but people tend to take these sorts of things and run with them and then end up all kinds of foolish places.  Obviously even if I could start censoring news outlets I wouldn't want to do so but I very much wish they took their obligations to give people context more seriously.  As an example, if somebody dies from a possible Ecstasy overdose they are nearly certain to get media coverage whereas someone who dies from aspirin is highly unlikely to be noticed.  Whenever deaths from drugs are reported we really should tell everyone how often perfectly legal drugs kill people to provide crucial context.  Somebody dying from Ecstasy is bad, but it is often used as a way to promote drug criminalization without accompanying stats on other perfectly legal drugs.  If every time the news reported a death from overdose of an illegal drug they also reported how many people had died of legal drugs since the last time they ran such a story we would have a *very* different set of drug laws.

Context and comparisons are hugely important in news reporting.  People don't know much about anything and providing those comparisons lets them process new information in a useful way.  We really need to get better at using those comparisons without horribly distorting the facts though, and this is on both news outlets and the public.  Newsy type folks should report more usefully and people should be less willing to swallow idiotic comparisons.


  1. Speaking of deaths due to legal drugs, the dangers of acetaminophen have been in the news lately:

    I'm very curious to see if this is actually going to get the attention it deserves, or just get swept under the rug. Maybe this is an argument in favor of not legalizing drugs - once there is a company making billions selling something, there is a legitimate company with a vested interest in hushing up the negative press.

    This article is part of the reason I've been so concerned about a certain small person vomiting after ingesting pain killers...

  2. Wendy: I agree that the current influence of drug companies leads to problematic outcomes, but I think the death toll for illegal drugs is pretty high too. Chicago is a city about the same size as Toronto with a murder rate over 10 times higher, and the difference is highly drug related with drug cartels controlling substantial portions of the city.

    The linked article says that acetaminophen is killing about 1,500 Americans a year. The drug war appears to be killing 20-30% of that in Chicago alone. Now the drug war is about more than one drug, and I'm sure people are dying from other legal drugs too, but that's also only counting murders, not even deaths from taking the drugs. Whether drugs are legal or not there is going to be a lot of money made off of them and people with huge amounts of money have a way of causing the deaths of people with not so much money in any event.

    Not to mention the fact that legal pot might reduce the number of acetaminophen deaths. Why bother with Tylenol?