When Data Tell the Story

Journalists are constantly being accused by those who work with data for a living of doing a poor job of incorporating data into their stories.

This is a fair argument. A lot of data gets mangled, cherry-picked, or turned upside-down on its way into an article. That said, I think most journalists and all data people would agree that the best journalism always tries hard to incorporate data if it’s relevant and reliable.

This morning, my paper copy of The Times included a replica of the paper’s special section on the moon landing from July 21, 1969. You’ve probably seen the iconic main headline: “MEN WALK ON MOON.” The lead article is by John Noble Wilford (who’s still going strong, btw), and includes one of the most elegant little uses of data I can recall seeing in a news article:

Although Mr. Armstrong is known as a man of few words, his heartbeats told of his excitement upon leading man’s first landing on the moon.

At the time of the descent rocket ignition, his heartbeat rate registered 110 a minute — 77 is normal for him — and it shot up to 156 at touchdown.

Someday I would like to write two sentences as good as those.

For those of you craving a photographic remembrance of the moon landing, it’s hard to do better than the collection put together by The Big Picture.

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  1. charles says:

    Simplicity is bliss. ZZ top understood the same thing.

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  2. Eric says:

    I hate to burst this bubble, but I think this bit of data is also cherry-picked or mangled. Excitement can cause elevation in heart-rate, but so can other things. Two particularly salient alternate hypotheses are that he was nervous and that he was scared.

    Probably the best explanation is a combination of all three.

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  3. Sony says:

    From Harper’s weekly

    “when the judge was asked by Senator Patrick
    Leahy (D., Vt.) to explain her “wise Latina woman”
    comment, she blinked at least 247 times while answering,
    averaging 90 blinks per minute in the morning; that rate
    decreased to 50 blinks per minute in the afternoon.”

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  4. MT says:

    Eric, you are right to point out alternative explanations that might explain the known data. I also agree that the actual answer is likely to be a combination of all three hypotheses.

    However, in this case it’s not the data that are “cherry-picked or mangled”. Rather, it’s the interpretation, or causal explanation, of the data that is incomplete.

    The data cited are themselves empirical and objective, and measure the signal (110), as well as the background (77), and the peak (156).

    What’s notable about Mr. Wilford’s writing is not only its simplicity, but that it actually provides these background and peak heart rate values.

    This is rare in popular science reporting, and its importance cannot be overstated: It is precisely this kind of contextual information that helps readers to understand and interpret Mr. Armstrong’s heart rate at key moments during the descent and landing.

    Indeed, there are only two minor flaws in Mr. Wilford’s description. First, the units of the “heartbeat rate” should have been listed, probably as beats per minute (bpm). (There are other measures of blood flow.)

    Second, the measurements are presented without any indication of error bars. Scientists know that “110″ is not the same as “110 +/- 5 bpm”, but many lay readers will not understand that, and in fact falsely assume infinite precision, i.e. “110″ somehow means “110.000000…”.

    Of course, Mr. Wilford was writing a newspaper article for the general public, and not a scientific paper, so these minor quibbles are forgivable in an otherwise excellent article that captures a key moment of human history.

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  5. Nosybear says:

    I can no longer generalize about all journalists mangling statistics.

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  6. JimBob says:

    “That said, I think most journalists and all data people would agree that the best journalism always tries hard to incorporate data if it’s relevant and reliable.”

    Actually, I think most journalists today incorporate the data in a way that presents their view best. Regardless, some people will look on the data and reach two different conclusions. Just think of the glass half full….

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  7. frankenduf says:

    the comparison to normal heartbeat maybe bogus as well- this assumes the heart beats at the same rate in low gravity environment

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  8. mus says:

    i love it, simple yet contains enough data that even a 6 year old can understand it.

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