Yesterday I finished reading John Allen Paulos' A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper
. It's a follow-up, of sorts to his Innumeracy
which I read
earlier this year. In it, Paulos looks at the various sections of the newspaper and takes on the validity of various techniques that are commonly used by reporters. Among other things, he examines how statistics can be emphasized for maximum effect (do you say that 1 in 100,000 people suffer from a certain disease or that there are 2,500 cases nationwide?) and to never underestimate the power of chance. But mostly it is a call for people to engage in critical thinking by asking the right question about what they read.
I thought about Paulos' admonitions as I read Paul Soglin's latest blog entry called "Wisconsin Curdles California Cheese Contest"
. In it, Soglin emphasizes quality over quantity when it comes to cheese. California, he notes, has more cows and makes more cheese than does Wisconsin but we Cheeseheads make better cheese, in Soglin's opinion. For evidence he offers the results of the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest in which "Badger State cheese makers came [sic] took first place in 27 of the 77 categories" while California had but a single first place winner.
True enough, but before we start gloating and making qualitative pronouncements, let's ask how many cheese makers from California entered the contest. As Paulos might note, you can turn things around. To wit: Wisconsin took first place in 35% of the categories in which Badger state cheese makers entered. If California cheese makers had only entered product in one category, then California bloggers could tout a 1.000 batting average for their state. Now, while more than one California cheese maker entered the contest in more than one category, there were very, very few of them in the contest. By contrast Wisconsin had several. Go look
for yourself. Believe me when I say that I'm pro-Sconnie cheese but we're going to have wait for another contest which features more cheese from the West Coast before we can declare ours "objectively" better.
But if you still want to rake on California, how about starting by noting that only one California cheese maker submitted a sample for the Monterey Jack category and that variety was invented over there. And they lost on top of that.**
**If you're going to mention that California lost the Monterey Jack competition, make sure you hide the fact that Wisconsin lost in the Colby category. (Colby was invented in Colby, WI.)