Wednesday, 25 February 2015

What is News?

When I first read Tom Friedman’s book “The Lexus and the Olive tree” in 1999, I was stunned. It related a set of major and historical events in the 1980s and 1990s of which I was, either totally, or tangentially. I was an avid reader of newspapers and somewhat less avid consumer of television news : or so I thought. Apparently I was reading the wrong news, mostly politics, sports, entertainment or science.

TV news, I realise, is just radio with makeup. It’s practically disinformation, not news. Newspapers are hardly better. But clearly they serve some markets.

Sometimes, a single statistic or graph explains more things than a whole shelf of books or a decade of personal experience. Moore’s law, Julian Simon’s bet, the Laffer curve, linguistics maps in Jared Diamond’s book “Guns Germs and Steel”, all these explain a phenomenon, a principle or history in a way that words simply can’t. This one, on plants and animals, stunned me recently.

John Allen Paulos tries to make this point in his book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. I think he fails by politeness. Hans Rosling does a better job with his TED talks.

Vaclav Smil, by dealing with large significant numbers, and placing them in context is unparalleled in the small circle that I am aware of. Bill Gates, who recently endorsed Smil as the author whose book he looks forward to the most, tweets some graphs, which I find are far more newsworthy than a hundred headlines about so-called earth shattering events. In an essay that explains how the world uses 20th century materials, Gates explains Smil's book Making the Modern World, with excellent graphs.

This one on China and cement is one such. China has used more cement in the last three years 2011-13 than the United States did in the 20th century. That simpy stuns me.



This graph on the benefits of vaccination in the US, is an example of a bad graph, much harder to understand. 

If only journalists would explain national budgets, industrialization, the market economy, science, or other political issues with such graphs. They only analyze - overanalzye - elections and electorate behaviour on such a scale. This is not confined to Indian media, it is a world wide phenomenon. The only channels where you see informative graphs are the sports channels : cricket, basketball, American football, tennis, these sports are analyzed with excellent statistics and very enlightening graphs. Perhaps that level of arithmetic is beyond the capacity of journalism. I doubt it. I suspect that their primary function is to misinform and keep the noise level high.

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2. எடிசனின் வால்மீகி - வஷ்லவ் ஸ்மில்
3. A Fascinating Graph of Life
4. The Laffer Curve

Followup March 28, 2015

Vaclav Smil's graph on cement and China was irresistible to Bill Gates. After a few weeks, Gates' tweet became irresistible to a major newspaper - the Washington Post, which published a story on the graph - though only a blog. I don't know if it came out in the print edition.

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