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Carl Bialik: Striking a Blow for Mathematical Accuracy in the Media

A 1997 Westinghouse finalist now picks apart suspect statistics as The Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy"



courtesy Wall Street Journal

His finalist year: 1997

His finalist project: Measuring fluorescence to determine the structure of proteins

What led to the project: As a kid, New York City native Carl Bialik always loved science and math. So, when an opportunity came via a family friend to work in a biophysics lab at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine during his sophomore year at The Bronx High School of Science, he leapt at the chance. Under the direction of mentor Bill Laws, Bialik and others in the lab used a technique, involving lasers, to excite molecules and make them glow. Measuring this fluorescence allowed them to understand different properties of the molecules' structure, such as which parts might be rotating or standing still.

Bialik's project focused on proteins. He came up with a way to help interpret the data, which Laws (now at the University of Montana–Missoula), he says, took to calling "Carl’s Parameter." Laws's designation, noted most crucially in Bialik's recommendation letters for the 1997 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, proved to be a good hook—it helped him land a finalist spot.

The effect on his career: His Mount Sinai experience—and the Westinghouse recognition—certainly whetted Bialik's appetite for learning more about physics. "I enjoyed the research experience and thought it might be what I wanted to do with my career," he says. He went to Yale University and majored in physics and math.

But, although Bialik enjoyed lab work, it wasn't his only passion. In high school, he'd worked for his school newspaper, and at Yale, he started covering sports, technology and other topics for The Yale Herald, a weekly student publication, in his spare time. By the end of his college career, "I was probably spending more time working on the school paper than on any particular math or physics project," he says. Writing "didn't come as naturally as math used to," but it seemed to hold more of a future for him.

So he decided to pursue a career in journalism. He went to Uganda shortly after graduation with a friend in order to freelance, perhaps forging a career as a foreign correspondent. Unfortunately, the demand for articles about Uganda wasn't very brisk. So he returned to New York City where, in winter 2002, he landed a job as a copy editor at The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). (He's not the only finalist to land at the paper: 1999 Intel finalist Keith Winstein has been there since 2007.)

What he's doing now: Bialik transitioned from copyediting to covering technology and other subjects for the WSJ. Then, in early 2005 William Grueskin, who later became a deputy managing editor, tapped him to write a column and blog about the use and misuse of numbers in daily life. "We knew that he had a tremendous interest and—for a newsroom—an unusual ability in math," says Grueskin, now the dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also knew that "there are a lot of really bad numbers out there" which, when quoted, give ideas more authority than they deserve. So it seemed like a great match. The column (and blog), which came to be called "The Numbers Guy," seeks out and exposes fishy statistics, whenever they rear their misleading heads.



For example, Bialik’s columns have shown that we do not know for sure that 330 family farms disappear each week, an oft-cited statistic. (The stat "was based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, which conducts a farm census every five years," Bialik noted. "NASS's 2002 census, its latest, found nearly 87,000 fewer farms than in the previous census, in 1997—working out to 334 fewer farms each week. But of the total, only 13,000 were individual or family farms, working out to 50 per week").

We also do not know that one in five children has been sexually solicited online. ("Here's a more accurate use of the statistic that we'll likely never see in an advocacy ad: Five years ago, one in five children—ranging from fifth graders to high school seniors—who used the Internet at least once a month said in a telephone survey that they'd received an online sexual solicitation, according to research paid for by advocates of the issue. Solicitations were broadly defined to include 'unwanted' sexual talk, whether from someone they knew or a stranger, or any sexual talk with someone over 18. Only 24 percent of the solicitations came from people who identified themselves as adults; the bulk of the remainder came from other minors, or those purporting to be under 18.")

Nor do we know that low-income children get only 25 hours of shared reading time with their parents before starting school, whereas middle-income kids get 1,000 to 1,700. As he points out, this latter number comes from the personal experience of one mom, Marilyn Jager Adams, who, in a 1990 book, estimated that was the amount of time she spent reading with her son John. "That's akin to predicting that all young children from middle-income families will graduate college with a degree in psychology and statistics, as John, now 23, has done," Bialik wrote in the 2007 column.

It's a refreshing change of pace, Grueskin says, in a world where many journalists "don't know anything about math" and see that as a "badge of honor."

Bialik, likewise, sees the column as a great way to "finally use the math and physics education and interest I've had." He plans to stay in journalism at least for awhile—"so long as journalism stays a viable career opportunity."

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