Saturday, March 15, 2008


From my perspective, it seems that there is an increasing number of cases of innumeracy in books and newspaper articles. Many of these articles are written by educated people -- people you would think should have no problem calculating a percentage or dividing one number by another. But you'd be wrong.

Here are two cases I recently noticed.

In Jeffrey Toobin's recent examination of the current Supreme Court, The Nine, he writes

On Wednesday, November 8, the first complete election figures in Florida showed Bush ahead of Gore by 2,909,135 to 2,907,351, or a margin of 1,784 votes.... The new results, announced on Thursday, November 9, cut Bush's margin to 327 votes --- or .00000056 percent.

Actually, 327 votes divided by 5.8 million is about .000056, or .0056 percent. Toobin evidently divided by 100 instead of multiplying, and hence obtained a result off by a factor of 10,000.

Here's another case: in a recent article in the Peterborough Examiner about my friend Mark Stanley, the reporter writes

" online mineral store called the Mineralogical Research Co. sells fulgerite for $6 a gram. That means an 18-kilogram fulgurite would be worth about $3,000."

Here the author apparently divided 18,000 grams by $6 to get the figure of $3,000. The correct amount, of course, is 18,000 grams multiplied by $6/gram, for a total of $108,000. She was only off by a factor of 36, better than Toobin. (I won't comment about her misspelling of "fulgurite".)

Update: Jeffrey Toobin sent me a nice note, acknowledging the error.


Anonymous said...

And so long as it's still socially acceptable (and arguably socially desirable) to be bad at math, this will continue.

It makes me cringe everytime someone says to me, "Oh, I'm just terrible at math! I can't even balance my checkbook! *giggle*"

A friend suggested that I respond, "That's okay, I'm functionally illiterate. Haha!" But I don't have the required snark-factor to pull it off.

Anonymous said...

Well, thanks to homeschooling, it will become better. From the blog Shining Examples:
At the home-school convention, I heard a staggering statistic. Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis said that 9 out 10 children raised in the church turn away from the faith of the parents. I was floored and what's more I was concerned for my own children, I immediately started praying, "O Father, not mine, please God let my children love you and never stray from you. Let them be that 1 %."

Chris Frey said...

This reminds me of a sad, but humorous recording of someone trying to get Verizon to acknowledge the difference between dollars and cents.