When my correspondents linked me to an Inc. Magazine article, “Study: Poor Writing Skills Are Costing Businesses Billions,” I thought I’d find good evidence for my thesis that business writing is a problem. Instead, I found bullshit, and a good case study in how today’s media environment is an echo chamber for garbage.
Poor writing is an expensive business problem, according to Inc.
Here’s how the article starts:
Study: Poor Writing Skills Are Costing Businesses Billions
Report shows more than $3.1 billion is being spent annually on remedial writing training.
Communication is an essential skill for any business, but what’s shocking is how much time and money businesses are spending each year to bring employees up to a basic proficiency level. Writing seems to be one of the skills requiring the most remedial training.
A study from CollegeBoard, a panel established by the National Commission on Writing, indicates that blue chip businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training–annually. Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees–not new hires.
Sounds pretty serious. But let’s apply some critical thinking skills (you know, the sort that this article complains must be lacking in college students) to this article.
“More than $3.1 billion” is a misquote of a bullshit number
The article cites a report from the College Board that includes interviews with 64 human resource leaders.
The $3.1 billion estimate comes from interviews with a few dozen individuals in each of six industries. The authors of the report extrapolate those interviews to every single employee in those industries, based on employment estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Based on interview responses, the report estimates the average percentage of workers who write, which of those don’t have the required writing skills, the proportion of those that the companies retrain, and the average cost of retraining.
Using a data set this small to extrapolate to six entire industries, including financial services, is questionable. Multiplying questionable numbers together makes the uncertainty explode. And you can tell that the authors of the report are nervous about their estimate, because of the way they state it:
The report estimates that costs for providing employee writing training may be as high as $3.1 billion annually.
But the Inc. article not only elides these uncertainties, it turns “costs . . . may be as high as $3.1 billion” into “more than $3.1 billion is being spent.” That’s not just questionable, it’s wrong.
Why write an article in 2016 on decade-old data?
Based on the headline, you might think this is a new study. It’s from September 2004. And it’s from the College Board, which has a vested interest in promoting the idea that writing skills are a problem.
Of course that’s not the only evidence in the article. The author also cites a report from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills which says that “26.2 percent of college students had deficient writing skills.” That report is from 2006.
Has anything changed in the writing skills of college students in the last ten or twelve years? Probably. But you won’t find out from reading this article.
Who wrote this? An Inc. “contributor”
Inc., much like Forbes, publishes stuff by “contributors” with this tiny disclaimer:
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.
The author, Kayleigh Moore, is “a social media consultant and copywriter who helps software-as-a-service companies craft intelligent content with a charming human element.”
Beware of statistics that you want to believe
Carl Bialik, formerly the “Numbers Guy” in the Wall Street Journal, has made a study of how statistics, shorn of sources and subtlety, go echoing across the Web. This is a great case in point.
So let’s recap.
An author not employed by Inc. wrote an article on Inc.com about a questionable estimate in a study from 12 years ago . . . and got 45,000 shares of her article.
I wish this number were true, because it would be great to bolster the work I’m doing. But it’s bullshit. If you want to believe something, you should be even more skeptical than if you disagree. No amount of passion can turn bullshit into truth.