Home > Uncategorized > Fox reporter needs math help

Fox reporter needs math help

November 6, 2015

Yesterday I gave my day-long tutorial on data science here in Stockholm. The only weird thing was that Swedish audiences are super quiet and polite so my material went way faster than I’d planned. But on lunch breaks and bathroom breaks they were extremely outgoing and positive, so I’m going to assume it went well.

This morning I’m scheduled to give a talk at a Statistics Sweden conference. I’m planning to talk a lot for each slide so I don’t end 15 minutes early. I have just enough time right now to share this amusing email, originally written by a Columbia University Public Affairs Officer, that was forwarded to me from an anonymous source:


A reporter with Fox News just called looking for some help calculating percentages for a story he’s preparing for tonight’s broadcast. He’s looking for someone who can help him explain what percentage of $60 billion would $325,000 be. It’s for a  story about the NY State $60 billion budget, of which $325,000 was found in fraud. It’s not a controversial story and he’s just looking for someone who can help him explain how much this is in lay terms. It does not have to be on the record.

Do we have any mathematics professors who could help with this calculation in the next hour or so? Thanks!

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Peter
    November 6, 2015 at 2:49 am

    tell him its 99.9%


  2. November 6, 2015 at 5:29 am

    So much for math education !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  3. tomL.
    November 6, 2015 at 5:38 am

    Charge a consulting fee.


  4. Christina
    November 6, 2015 at 5:57 am

    As much as I want, want, want in my heart of hearts to believe that story to be true, I’m still dubious. That fraud percentage is just way too low for New York.


    • Peter
      November 6, 2015 at 6:03 am

      This is just the *discovered* and *registered* fraud


  5. November 6, 2015 at 6:13 am

    FWIW New York State’s budget hasn’t been anywhere close to $60 billion since 2007. So either this reporter can’t grasp facts, either, or this is an ancient and/or apocryphal email.


    • Bill
      November 7, 2015 at 4:39 am

      An apocryphal email? No way. I received a similar email forwarded to me by an anonymous source about the same inquiry by Dan Quayle, hmm, or was it Sarah Palin.

      Cathy, get more sleep. Or, was this email too good to check?


  6. Allen K.
    November 6, 2015 at 6:41 am

    As stated, this is a reasonable thing to ask an expert about… not “what percentage is this”, but “how should one present such a thing to the public”.

    So… “a homeopathic amount”? “1/20th of a small Trump loan”?
    Or maybe “less than NYState gov’t pays for car washes” or some such thing.


  7. November 6, 2015 at 7:04 am

    Anytime Fox calls wanting help with math, be afraid, be very very afraid…


  8. Aaron
    November 6, 2015 at 7:37 am

    I’m with Allen on this one. Two thoughts:

    (1) If you take a hundred random dollars from New York’s budget and use them to buy Mega Millions tickets, the odds of winning a million dollar jackpot are better than the odds that one of those dollars was fraudulently spent. (Unless spending state funds on lottery tickets is fraudulent…)

    (2) On the other hand there are lots of ways to spend / steal money illegally that aren’t technically fraud.


  9. November 6, 2015 at 8:28 am

    Hmm, so what *are* your favorite comparisons that put $325k vs $60bn in perspective?
    Here are some suggestions.The fraud figure against the overall budget is like
    1) the cost of postage for a post card against a typical luxury sedan (35 cents vs $60-80k)
    2) the length of your inky finger nail against one mile.
    3) the time it takes to sneeze vs flying from NYC to LA (0.1 seconds vs a bit more than 5 hours). Though, my flight experiences were never that fast, I do have a reference (here)

    Making sense of numbers, especially with very different magnitudes, is tricky. One amusing part of this story is the idea that a typical math professor is the right person to ask for help in this regard.

    Sorry to sound sanctimonious, but I think we mathy folks should get out of the habit of directly or indirectly criticizing people who ask for math help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sally
      November 8, 2015 at 1:12 am

      Enjoyed these comparisons, Joshua.


  10. Josh
    November 6, 2015 at 9:29 am

    I strongly agree with Joshua.

    I think it is commendable that the reporter wanted to put the figure in context and wanted to check she had her decimal places right and was willing to ask for help. What’s wrong with that?

    (I’m assuming it is a she based on that description but there could obviously be men who fit that description, to).

    It is a little disturbing that she/he did not feel there was anyone within the Fox organization to ask. But, I would encourage more of this and criticize the those who make too much of numbers that may have a lot of zeros but are fairly small in context or the financial analysts who have trouble distinguishing trillions from billions.


    • November 6, 2015 at 9:31 am

      I knew you’d say that!! 😉


      • Leila
        November 7, 2015 at 7:12 am

        It’s just crazy to assume that an incompetent person who asks for help is a “she”…in spite of the mail which clearly refers to the person as a “he” several times! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!! Please change your mentality now!!


  11. Peter A
    November 6, 2015 at 9:53 am

    I was one of those quiet and polite Swedes in your audience yesterday. Just wanted to say it was a very inspiring tutorial and really enjoyable listening to you. I would say it went very well 🙂


  12. November 6, 2015 at 11:21 am

    I would wonder two things:
    1) If the PA Officer thought it was a request for math help (looking for a math professor), why couldn’t the PAO at NYU calculate this without help?
    2) If the request was for how to present it, why didn’t the PAO help without calling in someone else?


  13. Jennifer Hendricks
    November 6, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    Josh: What about the description makes the reporter sound like a “she.” The email refers to the reporter as “he” (three times) and “him” (twice).


  14. MikeC
    November 9, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    Stupid Fox reporter. Or it’s a hoax.

    I say this not because calculating percentages is so easy and he/she found it difficult, rather because Roger Ailes doesn’t want to put the 325K value in context at all.

    Putting it in context is NOT the role of Fox News reporters. Generating anger against the Gummint — that’s the Fox News role.


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