Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Experts tell journalists to improve math skills

A Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a Temple University mathematician emphasized the importance of journalists having solid foundations in science and math on Monday as part of the Medill School of Journalism’s Crain Lecture Series.

About 80 students, faculty and community members attended the event in Fisk Hall to hear Leon Lederman, director emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and John Allen Paulos, author of the best-selling book “A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper,” discuss the relevance of their fields to journalism.

Paulos said reporters need to comprehend the significance of the facts and figures they deliver to readers because not understanding these statistics can distract the public from the truth.

“We’re often fooled by this innate tendency to anchor ourselves to the first number we hear,” said Paulos, who is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University.

As an example, Paulos said journalists should be skeptical about a study relating bottled water and healthy babies. The relationship does not necessarily indicate that drinking bottled water produces healthy babies, but rather that wealthy people who buy bottled water also can afford good health care, Paulos said.

When journalists don’t thoroughly understand facts and figures, he said, they can misrepresent them as more significant than they are. And when readers continually hear the information, they soon buy into the hype, Paulos said.

“Up until three years ago there were 17 American men who were impotent,” he said, sardonically referring to the explosion in Viagra sales when the media began reporting about the drug. “Data, data everywhere, not a thought to think.”

Both Paulos and Lederman called for increased science and math education for journalists.

“If you’re going to be a journalist of any kind, you ought to have a strong science background,” said Lederman, who received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1988.

Lederman voiced his disappointment with the poor and scarce coverage of science in journalism, although he added that some books and movies, such as “Contact” and “October Sky,” are exceptions.

“Network (television) coverage of science is disastrous,” he said.

Having an education in science also would help journalists to better assess the validity of their sources, Lederman said, citing a man who received much attention for being able to clone humans, but later was discredited.

Lederman then added that not only potential journalists, but all students should receive a science education geared to their particular fields of interest, from business to law to other professions.

“The applications of science … apply to any profession,” he said.

Despite the dearth of good media coverage, public interest in science is high, Lederman said. The New York Times sells the most newspapers on Tuesdays when the Science Times supplement is included, and Time magazine sells best when a science-related photo is on the cover, he said.

Both journalism and non-journalism students who attended the lecture said they found it interesting.

Weinberg junior John Rhyner, whose main academic interest is science, said reporters should be educated in math and science so that when they report in those fields, readers receive the best information possible.

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Experts tell journalists to improve math skills