The Problems with Our Press Corps Run Deep: Eugene Stern Explains That Nick Kristof of the New York Times Is Not Smarter than an 8th Grader

Over at Equitable Growth Much of the dysfunction of the American press corps is driven by the ideological commitments of its bosses, the cultural flaws of its journalists’ communities, or the desperate need to scare its readers and viewers and thus keep them reading and viewing so that their eyeballs can be sold to advertisers.

Some of the dysfunction is not. Some of the dysfunction is unmotivated and completely pointless, even on its own terms.

Here we have Eugene Stern warning readers that reading Nick Kristof of The New York Times will not make you better informed:

Eugene Stern: Nick Kristof is not Smarter than an 8th Grader: “Jordan Ellenberg pointed me to this blog post…

…which highlights the problem…. In spite of Kristof’s alarmism, it turns out that American eighth graders actually did quite well on the 2011 TIMSS…. Out of 42 countries tested, the US placed 9th. If you look at the scores by country, you’ll see a large gap between the top 5 (Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan) and everyone else. After that gap comes Russia, in 6th place, then another gap, then a group of 9 closely bunched countries… [including] the US…. Our performance isn’t mind-blowing, but it’s not terrible either. So what the hell is Kristof talking about?…
In a list of 88 publicly-released questions… the US placed in the top third… on 45… the middle third on 39, and the bottom third on 4…. US kids did particularly well on statistics, data interpretation, and estimation… For example, 80% of US eighth graders answered this question correctly:
“Which of these is the best estimate of (7.21 × 3.86) / 10.09?
“(A) (7 × 3) / 10 (B) (7 × 4) / 10 (C) (7 × 3) / 11 (D) (7 × 4) / 11”
More American kids knew that the correct answer was (B) than Russians, Finns, Japanese, English, or Israelis. Nice job, kids! And let’s give your teachers some credit too!
But Kristof… has a narrative of American underperformance in mind, and if the overall test results don’t fit his story, he’ll just go and find some results that do!… Kristof literally went and picked the two questions out of 88 on which the US did the worst, and highlighted those in the column. (He gives a third example too, a question in which the US was in the middle of the pack, but the pack did poorly, so the US’s absolute score looks bad.) And, presto! — instead of a story about kids learning stuff and doing decently on a test, we have yet another hysterical screed about Americans “struggling to compete with citizens of other countries.”
Kristof gives no suggestions for what we can actually do better, by the way. But he does offer this helpful advice:
“Numeracy isn’t a sign of geekiness, but a basic requirement for intelligent discussions of public policy. Without it, politicians routinely get away with using statistics, as Mark Twain supposedly observed, the way a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination.”
So do op-ed columnists, apparently.

I really do not know what kind of bad actor Kristof is here. Did he decide to misrepresent the study on his own? Was he fed a set of notes for his column from some lobbyist who misrepresented the study to him, and failed to check whether what he was being told was accurate? I would like to know…

Originally published at