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.


Simplicity is bliss. ZZ top understood the same thing.


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.


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."


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.



I can no longer generalize about all journalists mangling statistics.


"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....


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


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


#6, I doubt most of those 'journalists' you're really talking about are incorporating data in a way that best presents their view. It's more likely, in this day and age, that they're incorporating data in a way that best presents the viewpoint they're paid/told to assemble.

It's our sad lot that we confuse/conflate such entertainers with actual journalism.

Brad Hicks

I don't want to REMEMBER the moon landings. I want to WATCH them.

This December, it will have been 37 years since we lost the capability to travel to the moon. At the time, they told it was only temporary, while we retooled our space program into a more permanent, more affordable one. Instead, it's been so long that only a relatively tiny minority of the people alive in the world today can say that they were alive when men walked on the moon.

In the intervening 37 years, we've also lost the ability of passengers to travel faster than the speed of sound, the ability of our CEOs to run profitable manufacturing businesses, and the ability of our regulators to prevent rampant fraud. The first moon landing, 40 years ago, was a high-water mark in human achievement. But it looks increasingly like the last high-water mark. It's been all downhill, all the way ever since. Thanks for reminding me.



It should be noted that Niel Armstrong crashed a lunar lander test module during training on May 6, 1968 when he lost control and ejected seconds before it crashed in a fiery explosion. Another lunar training vehicle was crashed on December 8, 1968.

Also during the actual moon landing the amount of thruster fuel was limited so Armstrong had very little room for error.

Apollo 11 landed with less fuel than other missions, and the astronauts also encountered a premature low fuel warning. It was later found to be caused by the lunar gravity permitting greater propellant 'slosh' which had uncovered a fuel sensor. On subsequent missions, extra baffles were added to the tanks.


I can't find the source article at the moment, but this jump in heart rate was noted during the descent phase of the landing. It occurred when the descent computer flashed an Alarm code that could have cause them to abort the mission, or in their minds, crash.


Being a Florida boy of the right age for the space program, with a father who worked on the program, I also remember and respect Neil Armstrong for his quick wits on the Gemini 8 near-disaster. I wonder what his heart rate looked like when he was spinning 60 RPM and risk of passing out.


To the point of 'averages' and so on, another useful statistic for those truly geeky among us would be to see similar statistics for the other Apollo moon landing commanders.


The best use of statistics would've been an enormous bar chart of the number of moon landings achieved, by country. And the set of countries chosen would have been the US and the USSR.