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16 Jan. 2007
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Editorial Glaze

It's been a while since I've railed about innumeracy in the media.  In the past, my comments were usually about CNN getting numbers, usually those relating to science subjects, drastically and risibly incorrect.  Today, we find an even more egregious error in a far more august publication, The New York Times.  NY Times, Page C4 excerpt, 06 January 2007

In an interesting article about how the Japanese conserve energy, the Times of 06 January 2007 interpreted the Japanese propensity to consume less energy thus:

That means Japan consumed the energy equivalent to 2.8 million tons of oil per person in 2004, in contrast to 5.4 million tons per American.

Really!  If you are part of an American household comprising at least two people, then, at least according to the Times, you have something in common with the energy yield of Ivy Mike, right.Ivy Mike, yield approximately 10 megatons.  Bye bye Elugelab.  I am perpetually amazed by the grotesque errors made in news media.  It's easy to make modest errors, as I may have just done.  Is the energy yield of a ton of oil the same as the energy yield of a ton of TNT?  Only approximately, both being chemical reservoirs of energy.  I could look it up, but why should I worry about an error so tiny in comparison to the orders of magnitude blithely bandied by the Times? 

How many orders of magnitude? 

  • I found a table that showed that in 2006 an average household used about 190 million BTU of energy.

  • 1 BTU = 1/4 kilocalories (i.e, the kind of calories you need about 2-3000 per day to live on), so you must eat about 10,000 BTU per day.  (One pound of chocolate provides 8,000 BTU, so a modest peanut butter supplement would be required to avoid losing weight.)

  • To provide 190 million BTU, which according to the Times requires 5.4 million tons of oil, would only require 12 tons of chocolate.  This is a ratio of almost half a million to one.  So clearly either something is wrong, or we should be bringing democracy to Ghana, Cameroun, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, and Venezuela.

In other words, the Times article is off by about five or six decimal orders of magnitude.  Newspaper articles are created by reporters and then checked by editors and aptly-named fact checkers.  I think it must be an occupational characteristic that their eyes glaze over when presented with numbers or statistics of any sort.  Probably some poor intern spent hours confirming the 2.8 vs. 5.4, and never spent a second discussing with the editor or reporter whether the rest of the number made any sense at all.

Of course I could be wrong, since I have neither editor nor fact checker.  Perhaps we should be using chocolate for fuel.


Follow-up 17 January 2007


I checked to find whether the Times had published a correction and indeed there was one on-line.  It seems the "million" was spurious.  No surprise, but no explanation as to how it got there in the first place.


NP:  "Back on the Chain Gang" - The Pretenders

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