Mara Gay made a lot of headlines when she claimed, on Twitter (via RealClearPolitics):
Bloomberg spent $500 million on ads. The U.S. Population, 327 million. He could have given each American $1 million and have had lunch money left over.
The math works out to $1.53 per person. It's simple division.
On Twitter the reaction was swift and harsh. Later she would go on to repeat the claim with Brian Williams on MSNBC. They were very harshly criticized on Twitter. Mr. Williams, Ms. Gay, and the rest of the crew couldn't figure out the math on the TV show. It was corrected after a break.
Ms. Gay wrote an opinion piece (archive, she's on the editorial board of the New York Times) based on her experience of being attacked by the Twitter mob. I'm going to start with something I agree with:
Unfortunately, quite a few Americans can tell you what it’s like to be the target of a Twitter mob over a gaffe. My great sin was trivial, harmless, silly. What’s it like when people are trying to cancel you for a math mistake? Weird, and maddening and painful.
The Twitter mob sucks.
Across social media, right-wing trolls celebrated. And some journalists did, too. Most of them were men who are prolific on Twitter. (Going out and doing actual reporting? That’s harder.) The next time they make a mistake, I hope people are nicer to them than they were to me. “How did this end up on TV?” one of them helpfully wrote, sharing the video.
I also hope people are more forgiving of minor errors. And, obviously going out and doing actual reporting is harder. That's why I write from the comfort of my own home (and get nothing from it). Perhaps I don't understand what the editorial board does, though. Do they go out and do actual reporting? No matter, I'll go on.
This is the part that concerns me the most:
Some people seemed surprised I couldn’t fact-check arithmetic on live TV. Let me assure you that my high school math teachers were not among those people.
Given my history with math, I thought the flub was pretty funny, too. I tried to laugh it off. “Buying a calculator,” I wrote on Twitter on Friday. “Brb.”
Why would this part bother me? Here's a study from Gordon Taub, Timothy Keith, Randy Floyd, and Kevin McGrew. It's about cognitive abilities and math ability. Here's a key quote from the conclusion.
One of the most thought provoking findings from the study was that general intelligence, g, had large but only indirect effects on the Quantitative Knowledge factor across all age groups. This set of findings means that between ages 5 and 19, g had a direct effect on [Fluid Reasoning, Crystallized Intelligence, and Processing Speed], which in turn, had a direct effect on the mathematics dependent variable, Quantitative Knowledge.
So, intelligence leads normally to fluid reasoning, processing speed, and knowledge (i.e., crystallized intelligence). Someone who has been bad at math can, reasonably, be assumed to have subpar levels of reasoning, processing speed, and knowledge. Is that the type of person to whom we should listen? Should we really value their opinion? Should we watch him on MSNBC? Should we read her writing in the New York Times?