fivethirtyeight.com doesn’t understand mathematics

I happened to find myself browsing fivethirtyeight.com a few weeks ago, where I came across a column known as the “riddler.” The particular problem of the week (see here) was to answer the following:

Problem: It’s Friday and that means it’s party time! A group of N people are in attendance at your shindig, some of whom are friends with each other. (Let’s assume friendship is symmetric — if person A is friends with person B, then B is friends with A.) Suppose that everyone has at least one friend at the party, and that a person is “proud” if her number of friends is strictly larger than the average number of friends that her own friends have. (A competitive lot, your guests.)

Importantly, more than one person can be proud. How large can the share of proud people at the party be?

If you take a completed graph and omit one edge, then N - 2 people know everyone and have N friends, and the remaining two people have N - 1 friends. In this case, there are N - 2 proud people. On the other hand, at least one person has a smaller or equal number of friends than everybody else, and so they can’t have more friends than any of their other friends let alone their average number. So at least one person is not proud. Hence the real content of the question is to determine whether there can be N - 1 proud people. The answer to this question (which is no) is harder than coming up with the example but neither terribly difficult nor particularly interesting. The absolute shocker, however, is that the riddler’s “solution” (scroll to the bottom of the page) to the puzzle is merely to exhibit the example above with N - 2 proud people. There’s not any hint that an argument is required to show that N - 1 is not possible. I nearly choked on my cappuccino when reading this. (You could try to argue that the formulation of the problem allows for some wiggle room: one is asked to find the highest proportion of people with the indicated property, and so imaging that N is not fixed, one might claim it merely suffices to show that the limit is 1 as N goes to infinity. But I don’t buy this.) Click and Clack would never have made this mistake.

Maybe the author of the riddler was aware of this issue or maybe they weren’t. But the whole point about online media is that it doesn’t require dumbing down the message to reach the right audience. I may well agree that in this (or other) particular cases, the technical details of a correct solution may be a little annoying, but in that case it is OK as long as:

1. One provides a link with the full argument, and crucially:
2. One makes it very clear in the main text that there is something left to do to fully answer the question.

Not mentioning that there is any issue at all represents a failure in what I hoped the website fivethirtyeight.com was supposed to represent. Instead of hiring technical people who can write and training them in journalism, they appear to have simply hired journalists with a fairly mixed level of technical expertise. That’s a missed opportunity.

(I did look up the person responsible for the riddler website, and they appear not to have any scientific training. Rather, they were trained as an economist. At my institution, no less (hmmm)).

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One Response to fivethirtyeight.com doesn’t understand mathematics

  1. Pingback: Public Displays of Mathematics | Persiflage

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