Wednesday, February 27, 2013


"The person who reads 
and doesn't understand 
is no better off than the 
person who can't."

I can't remember where I first heard this, but it rings true the more I read the responses to the things I write. Specifically, I'm convinced that illiteracy goes far beyond the inability to read, and also applies to one's inability to understand simple graphs, charts, and written nuance.

This Monday my article "All hail the Gop's Stunning sequestration chutzpah" appeared in our local paper, the Bakersfield Californian. Among the points that I made, two of the most prominent are that: (1) President Obama inherited trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye could see and that; (2) new federal spending under President Obama has actually gone down. I also provided a chart with information drawn from the Congressional Budget Office to make my point on new spending (information that originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal's Moneywatch, which is reposted here).

So, what do I see in the on-line comment section of the Bakersfield Californian?

... Obama has outspent any other US president (by far), has increased the amount of Americans in Poverty and increased the number of Americans on government assistance to 128 Million. Obama refuses to stop spending money he doesn't have; he wants to collapse the Dollar. He wants all Americans dependent on the government. Part of his socialism push.

Besides going off track, the on-line writer - and others, as we shall see - completely ignored or missed what I said in my op-ed. Or, and this seems more probable, the on-line writer (he calls himself "giwillikers") simply doesn't understand what he reads.

Look, in very simple terms I was referring to NEW spending by administration. In fact, I wrote "new" spending  twice in the article. The term "annualized growth of federal spending" is also in the accompanying chart (I know, a bit tough for some, but this is supposed to be the editorial page).

So, in real simple terms, NEW federal spending refers to what President Obama is responsible for putting on the books. It's what the president proposes and gets to spend. What President Obama had on his desk when he walked into the Oval Office (the built-in deficits) is another matter.

So, let me make it simpler for all those who read at the same level as my on-line friend ...

Blaming President Obama for total spending levels today is like congratulating the man who marries the girl who's already pregnant from her previous boyfriend.

The fact that Congress fails to do anything about the budget mess every year is akin to the old boyfriend sneaking back into the house of his former girlfriend (annually).

Too blunt? Well, when people don't understand nuance or the finer points of the written word blunt is necessary.

The reason I didn't make this point in the article I submitted to the Californian is because of space limitations. You only get so many words. But most importantly I'm assuming that the people who read and respond to the Californian's editorial pages can read for nuance.

Apparently, I was wrong.

All of this wouldn't be so bad, except for one thing: I have a colleague (outside of my department, mind you) who can't seem to read for nuance either. Here's the link to his Letter to the Editor. In a few words, he's made the same mistake that my on-line friend did, and he's a statistician to boot.

But wait, it gets worse.

To make his point, my colleague invented an entirely new category - spending as a percentage of GDP - that I never made reference to in my article. I discussed NEW spending. My colleague would've known this if he understood nuance, or even paid attention to what was presented in the accompanying chart where, incredibly enough, it says "annualized growth of federal spending" (something a supposed veteran reader and student of statistics should be able to interpret).

To my colleague - who you can find by clicking here - all I can say is seek help ...

I could go on but would rather finish with this. Last week I posted this article on my blog. It's one of those run of the mill surveys. It says Bakersfield is the least literate city in America (yes, we're #1). I posted it because I found it amusing.

Then I started reading the responses to my op-ed.

They breathe life into Bakersfield's literacy ranking.

Worse, they make it clear that the person who reads and doesn't understand is really no better off than the person who can't.

- Mark


R. M. said...

I read the comments. That's pretty much the type of comments you will find on Yahoo's articles too. A bunch of illiterate yahoos.

crickett_4jc said...

I can't even read he comments anymore--it makes my blood boil too mud, and then depresses me that people are really THAT stupid.

Anonymous said...

What!? I'm thoroughly enjoying my time on the Californian comment section. (Beer in hand to assist with the chronic misspellings).

gwillikers,-- "thought provoking", "Humorous", "a demi-god comedian amongst mortals". "Captivating"! "A must read"!


Unknown said...

Indeed for more than two centuries, Americans have gotten away with not knowing much about the world around them. But times have changed—and they’ve changed in ways that make ignorance a big problem going forward.I can't speak for all Americans, of course. But, personally, I blame the public school system.The curriculum probably should be changed.Some will read WWII as "world war eleven". In general, most American students are extremely well informed about pop music groups, celebrities, TV, etc., because they are surronded by this stuff, it is fed to them from every possible source, and basic American youth culture is anti-intellectual. It is very difficult to separate cause and effect in this connection, perhaps because it is a circular self-reinforcing phenomenon. As regards some of the other comments I look to the Dunning–Kruger effect which is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others"