Count on the Numbers Guy

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By: Brian Orloff

Reading a news story peppered with statistics and poll data can sometimes make you feel like you should have stayed awake back in calculus class. But don’t be frazzled if the flurry of numbers throws you off ? that’s where the Numbers Guy comes in.

His real name is Carl Bialik, a 25-year-old writer for The Wall Street Journal Online who, on the advice of its managing editor Bill Grueskin, launched a column in January to help readers make sense of the often puzzling math that appears in some news stories. The column, titled “The Numbers Guy,” helps readers understand the ways in which numbers are used ? and often distorted ? in the media.

“I used to be a tech reporter, and we’d see all the time numbers that just seemed kind of fishy, or their source was questionable, or they weren’t explained in proper context,” Bialik says of the column’s inception. Bialik studied math and physics at Yale University and gained journalism experience working on the school paper.

His new column tackles everything from election statistics to a recent item about the number of cell phones lost in London cabs. In one column, Bialik investigated the way in which the World Health Organization reports death rates from Bird Flu, concluding that inflated, unsubstantiated statistics used in alarmist ways are more dangerous than simple numerical inaccuracies. Bialik wrote, “The truth is, scientists don’t know the rates at which this hypothetical flu … could infect and kill.”

In a later column, Bialik explored the connection between poll data and expected turnout in the Iraqi election, explaining to readers what makes a survey scientific and reliable.

Bialik’s writing is clear and sharp. His tone is instructive ? “too much precision in a statistic is a good signal to dig deeper into the methodology and the origin,” he writes ? but not condescending. And since “The Numbers Guy” is intended to be analytical and service-based, Bialik says it’s important to keep things accessible in order to maintain readers’ interest.

“One thing we wanted from the start with this column was for it to be very interactive,” he says. By keeping the column free ? as opposed to much of the Journal’s Web content, which is subscriber-only ? Bialik expects more people to read and respond. He solicits questions that readers would like answered, as well as news tips: “It’s like having an army of eyes looking out for things and helping you out.”

In addition to his column, Bialik freelances for the Wall Street Journal Online and co-writes a sports column for them. But as Numbers Guy, Bialik says his role is not to invite more cynicism but to assuage overly skeptical readers and inspire people to think. “If it raises people’s interest in numbers and people’s intelligence in thinking about numbers,” he says, “it would be a great thing.”

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