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Super Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn’t Understand Statistics

Nothing says “super smart” like making a really boneheaded error in your presentation about how stupid other people are.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is super smart. Super duper smart. Super duper scientist smart. So smart, that this is what Google auto-fill suggests when you search for “neil degrasse tyson smart”:

NDGT Smart

Unfortunately, it does not appear that Tyson is smart enough to understand super simple statistics or proper quote attribution. At the Tableau Conference (#data14) in Seattle today, Tyson gave a presentation about, you guessed it, science. During his presentation, he featured a slide that was meant to demonstrate that journalists are really bad at understanding data. Here’s the slide, courtesy of @albertocairo, a conference attendee:

The slide states: “‘Half the schools in the district are below average.’ – Newspaper Headline”. The mind reels.

To start with, that’s a terrible headline. Below average at what? Half the schools in which district? It’s such a terrible headline, that I don’t think it’s real. USA Today reporter Gregory Korte also expressed some skepticism on Twitter:

Nexis returns exactly 0 results when you search for the precise phrase: “Half the schools in the district are below average.” It also returns zero results if you just search for those words and don’t require them to be in that order:

Nexis NDGT Search

A search for the words “half,” “school,” “below,” and “average” returns only 3 results, two of which come from a 2003 Associated Press article about Arkansas, and none of which features the headline cited by Tyson:

In the state’s 126 middle schools the average pupil-teacher ratio was 11.93 to 1. Exactly half of the schools were below the average. Even the “most crowded” school, Lake Hamilton Intermediate, averaged 16.06, well under the consultants’ recommendation.

If you Google the exact headline cited by Tyson, the results are similar. Google returns three pages of links referencing Neil deGrasse Tyson, but zero links to news articles with that headline.

There’s also this gem, which Tyson uses to mock members of Congress for being dumb:

The Nexis and Google results are the same for his exact quote about members of Congress: nada from Nexis, and a mere two pages of Google links that only reference Tyson, rather than a single original source. Now, journalists may be bad at math, and members of Congress may be stupid, but if a journalist poorly plagiarized a joke and then fabricated a quote about a member of Congress, that journalist would likely be out of a job. What happens when a scientist does it?

Though I’m sciencey enough to know that I can’t technically prove that Tyson made those quotes up out of thin air (after all, you can’t prove a negative: in this case, that a headline or quote doesn’t exist), I’m pretty confident in asserting that they were both fabricated. It seems rather obvious to me that Tyson is attempting to make the old joke that Garrison Keillor made about the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Except Tyson wanted to get credit for the joke instead of giving the credit where it’s due. There’s a word to describe people who steal jokes and make up quotes to suit their ideological agendas, but I don’t believe that word is “scientist.” And seriously, how monumentally lazy do you have to be to make up a quote to prove that politicians are dumb?

Those are just minor beefs, though. My real beef is with his blatantly incorrect use of statistics. Take a look at the alleged headline one more time: “Half the schools in the district are below average.” The reaction that statement is supposed to elicit is something along the lines of “Well of course half are below average LOL that’s so stupid OMG.”

Except it’s not, because there’s a pretty big difference between a mean and a median. The mean is a mere average of a set of values. The median is the middle point of a set of numbers. It’s such an easy and basic distinction to grasp that one wonders why it so easily slipped through the fingers of the world’s greatest scientist.

It is entirely possible, you see, for the majority of data points in a number set to be above or below the average value of that number set. Imagine a set of nine rocks: four of them weigh one 1.0 pound, four of them weigh 20.0 pounds, and one rock weighs 5.0 pounds. That’s a total of 89 pounds spread across nine rocks. The average weight is 9.89 pounds (9.8 repeating, if you want to get technical). The median weight is 5.0 pounds. That is, a majority of the rocks (five of them) weigh below average. A minority of the rocks (four of them) have an above-average weight.

There is nothing ignorant, stupid, or scientifically illiterate about the statement that some percentage of some number set is below average. Why? Because math, that’s why.

In order for Tyson’s stolen-and-then-hopelessly-mangled joke to work, he has to reference the median value of a number set, not the average value. The median, by definition, is the middle, the halfway point. An equal number of data points are above and below it.

Now, for all I know (I was not present at the conference and only saw the picture of his slide on Twitter), Tyson may have had a long digression about means and medians and skewness and the characteristics of normal distributions. However, that still doesn’t change the fact that his slide, which is obviously intended to make people who aren’t him look stupid, did not contain an inherently stupid or scientifically inaccurate statement. It also didn’t appear to contain an actual newspaper headline.

But what do I know? I’m just a humble writer who can do a little math, use Google, and correctly attribute quotes.

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