Numbers lie all the time: Wegmans, Harvard and crap data journalism

Data is everything in our modern world, and statistical comparisons are a regular part of journalism. The problem is that juxtaposing two numbers doesn’t necessarily tell us anything useful.

Such is the case with the new data point making the rounds on social right now, comparing the rate of acceptance of Harvard students and of applicants to a particular Pennsylvanian Wegmans:

Some 10,000 people applied for 500 positions at a Wegmans slated to open next month.

About 500 new employees were hired from the applicant pool — a 5 percent acceptance rate.

By comparison, Harvard had an undergraduate acceptance rate of 5.8 percent in the most recent year.

This is no doubt true. But on the other hand, you have a .00004% chance of getting struck by lightning, so there’s that.

How do these numbers compare? Harvard is a higher education institution with international prestige, to which a small handful of high-functioning rich kids get to apply. People spend their entire childhoods preparing for the enrollment contest. Parents spend countless riches paving their children’s way.

Wegmans… is a grocery store.

Perhaps the story aught properly to have been about why 10k people in Montgomery, PA needed jobs. Why 1% of the population of an entire county felt the need to seek out work at a grocery store. But that wouldn’t have had the flash of comparing two otherwise-unrelated numbers.

It smacks, to some extent, of elitism. Everybody knows that Harvard is where the successful business people go, but Wegmans? That’s just a Joe job. Who ever heard of poor people having to struggle?