Once Again, Media Figures Can’t Handle Big Numbers

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Oscar Gordon

A Navy Turbine Tech who learned to spin wrenches on old cars, Oscar has since been trained as an Engineer & Software Developer & now writes tools for other engineers. When not in his shop or at work, he can be found spending time with his family, gardening, hiking, kayaking, gaming, or whatever strikes his fancy & fits in the budget.

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22 Responses

  1. Avatar jason
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    says:

    Everyone should read _Math with Bad Drawings_ (the book) for some great basic math instruction. I’m not anti-math at all–I went up to Calc 2 in college #fuckintegrals earning B’s in both, which probably would have been A’s but I hadn’t taken trig in about six years at that point. (And I was a poor student at that time.) I didn’t read the full list you posted, but I always teach my students that numbers mean nothing without the right comparison points because so much bad math use by news outlets has that as a factor (when they’re not making colossal fish ups like the one in your post).Report

  2. Avatar Kristin Devine
    Ignored
    says:

    I just made a public math mistake so I have sympathy for them. I do math all day long at work (accurately) and just flubbed something when I was tired and not feeling well. But that having been said, I’m not on TV either LOL.Report

    • Avatar jason in reply to Kristin Devine
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      says:

      Exactly! Like the other post said–no one in that newsroom caught it. I’ve made mistakes–they happen, but when a team (and surely there’s a team producing such segments) of “professionals” make a very basic mistake, that’s pretty bad.Report

  3. fillyjonk fillyjonk
    Ignored
    says:

    I admit I had to think hard about it to spot the error, and I am allegedly part-biostatistician (and ecologist, and ecology is much more numbers than it is fluffy animals or recycling). Then again, it also was 5:30 am when I saw it.Report

  4. Avatar Michael Cain
    Ignored
    says:

    At least part of my training has been as a mathematician. Before I’ll put big numbers in print, I not only run it through the calculator, but I’ll try to find a different way to approach the same number as a sanity test. Humans aren’t very good with big numbers.

    I would have said this particular problem is one of scale, not significant digits. Jumping over to scientific notation, significant digits are the difference between 5e8 (five hundred million dollars, one significant digit) and 5.32748e8 (five hundred thirty-two million, seven hundred forty-eight thousand dollars, six significant digits. The important comparison is 5e8 dollars and 3.3e8 people — a scale comparison, not a significant digits comparison.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain
      Ignored
      says:

      Fair point, I was thinking of it as, you have millions here, you have millions there, drop the millions and do the math (those 6 zeros are significantly interfering with your ability to do basic math, aren’t they?).

      But yes, significant digits and orders of magnitude are different things.Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        Is engineering notation still a thing? My beloved HP-41C calculator (before PCs were really a thing) had a display setting for the exponential in powers of multiples of three. It meshed nicely with the metric prefixes (except centi- and deci-) and really helped with an intuition for orders of magnitude.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Oscar Gordon
        Ignored
        says:

        I think its a simple “confirming priors” mistake.

        When you watch the clip, they say he spent 500 Million and could have given a Million to every person.

        There’s no math or conversion, no orders of magnitude… just a failure to do simple logic check of 500 vs. All Americans.

        This is a basic prose problem… no math involved. The believed an “expert” on twitter, because they wanted to believe.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Marchmaine
          Ignored
          says:

          Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of insane misconceptions about stuff like this from people on the left. Yes, both sides are ignorant and others are free to elaborate on that, but I get a lot more exposure to left-wing ignorance, and this is my comment, so I’m going to do what I want with it.

          Anyway, on top of this, a couple days ago I saw something being shared around on Facebook claiming that Bloomberg’s campaign spending proves that “the 1%” can pay for all of Bernie Sanders’ proposed new spending “without breaking a sweat.” Then there was this howler. And the time Ocasio-Cortez said that 2/3 of BernieCare could be paid for by cutting waste and fraud out of the military. A guy I know with a STEM PhD thought that the US government spent more money on the military than on education, health care, and welfare combined.

          Not really on the left as such, but there were those two recent posts here drawing an equivalence between Sanders’ $5 trillion per year in proposed new spending and “corporate welfare,” which by even fairly liberal accounting amounts to at most $100 billion per year.

          I’ve always known that part of the reason that the far left supports the policies they support is that they just don’t understand economics. But lately I’ve begun to suspect that left-wing ideology is to a surprising extent driven by sheer ignorance of basic facts about who pays taxes, what the government spends money on, and how much money rich people have in aggregate.

          If you believe that one rich guy can spend a small fraction of his wealth to make everyone a millionaire but won’t just because he’s a jerk—or slightly less stupidly, that trillions of dollars in additional yearly tax revenue can be raised from the top 1%—Bernie Sanders makes a lot more sense. If you believe that rich people just aren’t paying taxes, it’s reasonable to believe that we should “make them pay their fair share.” If you believe that we can pay for universal health care and free college just by cutting military spending, that makes a lot of sense, too.

          I don’t know. Maybe the agenda comes first, and they’ll repeat any factoid that suits that agenda. But I wonder how many people there are out there who only embrace leftist ideology because of wildly inaccurate beliefs about what the world is like right now.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Brandon Berg
            Ignored
            says:

            I’m reminded of the Flint Water Crisis.

            At the beginning of the crisis, it was supposed to cost… what? $55 Million is one of the numbers I’ve seen kicked around. Jeez! Billionaire could fix that with the stuff he could find in the cracks of his couch cushions!

            Well, here’s an article discussing how difficult it is to account for the almost $400 million spent on the crisis so far.

            Wait. What?Report

            • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Jaybird
              Ignored
              says:

              I’m not sure that’s quite the same category of thing I had in mind. Jeff Bezos could pay to fix the pipes in Flint, even with the $350 million and counting cost overrun. We can have a discussion about whether he should—Does he have obligations in excess of the taxes he’s already paid? Of all the good causes in the world, why this one? Why can’t the 100,000 people of Flint cough up $500 each to fix their own pipes?—and some might say this is unseemly, but nobody’s going to stop us and say this is stupid because Jeff Bezos’ net worth is in fact only 5% of the cost of fixing Flint’s pipes.

              This does remind me of the hysteria over bottled water. Apparently Nestle has a bottling factory about a hundred miles from Flint. And a lot of people think this is some kind of scandal, that Nestle is bottling drinking water in rough proximity to Flint. This is just plain stupid, for multiple reasons. Off the top of my head:

              1. Flint doesn’t have a water shortage. They have dirty pipes.
              2. Nestle isn’t taking water from the same source as Flint.
              3. The amount of water used by bottlers is trivial compared to the amount of water used by households, which is in turn dwarfed by agricultural irrigation.
              4. Michigan is a peninsula, literally surrounded by two of the five largest freshwater lakes in the world. They’re not running out of water.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Brandon Berg
                Ignored
                says:

                Well, if it cost, oh, $100 million to fix everything and it cost $300 million to grease the palms of the palms that needed greasing, why is the problem the billionaires who refused to cough up the bribes instead of the people who needed bribing before stuff could actually get done?Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Jaybird
                Ignored
                says:

                Right. You don’t have to convince me that there are many good arguments that Jeff Bezos doesn’t have an obligation to pay to fix pipes in Flint. I’m just saying that proposals that are obviously mathematically impossible are on a higher tier of stupid than those that are not.

                When we’re talking about whether Jeff Bezos has an obligation to pay to fix pipes, that’s more of a philosophical question. When we’re talking about whether billionaires have an obligation to fund Medicare for All, the very clear answer is that they just don’t have that much money.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Brandon Berg
                Ignored
                says:

                The state of Michigan put the bozo who destroyed the water supply in charge, not the residents of Flint.

                And it’s water from Lake Huron that caused the problem, because it’s incompatible with the pipes. Which are old, not “dirty”. They should have been replaced long ago, but infrastructure upkeep is apparently less important than continuous tax cuts.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Schilling
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                says:

                Which bozo, specifically, because that mess has all manner of blame to go around.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Oscar Gordon
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                says:

                The emergency manager who replaced the elected city government. Or one of two such, since they’re pointing fingers at each other. Either way, the state should take responsibility.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Schilling
                Ignored
                says:

                Are you suggesting that absent the Emergency Manager(s), that Flint would have somehow avoided this mess on their own?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon
                Ignored
                says:

                I am reminded of how Ralph Nader responded to 9/11.

                Q. Would you have made an effective wartime president?

                A. This war would never have happened had I been president, because for 30 years we have had an aviation safety group, and we have been urging the airlines to toughen cockpit doors and improve the strength of the locks, and they have been resisting for 30 years.

                Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Oscar Gordon
                Ignored
                says:

                They had avoided the problem forever by continuing to use a water source that didn’t trigger it. The problem was switching sources to one with a different pH to save money.Report

              • Avatar J_A in reply to Mike Schilling
                Ignored
                says:

                We went trough this technical debate in real time here in OT – This is exactly what happened. Flint used to buy water from Detroit, the EM decided that was too expensive, and they could use water from the river. The change caused the pipes to leach (which I think it had been predicted by the engineers, but I might be wrong). Once the protective oxide layer was removed from the pipes, even returning to Detroit water would not stop the leaching.

                Savings was the only driver on the decision, which was made by the EMReport

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to J_A
                Ignored
                says:

                Well, no, the decision was forced by Detroit, who got pissy that Flint decided to sign the KWA contract, and then shut off the water to Flint the very next day, forcing them to find an alternate source right quick.

                The pH of the new source was known, as was the necessary mitigation. I don’t recall who was responsible for not enacting those mitigations.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Oscar Gordon
                Ignored
                says:

                I wouldn’t say “pissy.”

                If I recall the financial situation correctly, Flint was seriously in arrears on payments to DWS, and everyone knew part of the state managers’ plan to change water suppliers was to stiff DWS entirely. Detroit and DWS were already preparing to file for bankruptcy and DWS was under enormous pressure to cut off their big delinquent accounts. Doing that was important to Detroit’s eventual bankruptcy settlement: most of DWS (and major chunks of debt) were sold off to a new entity (GLWA) controlled by the surrounding suburbs.Report

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