Ian Jack in Teh Grauniad of all places, on the value of subs

He\’s entirely correct, of course.

And to be honest, the G\’s are pretty good by comparison with the others (not as good as The Times though, of course, before Mr. Redacto comments…..nor as good as the Telegraph used to be).

But they\’re really still got a huge, vast, failing: numeracy.

And I\’m afraid that carries on across all of the papers. The distinction between Lady Mary and Lady Soames is subtle: between million and billion not so much. That latter error gets made more often than the former though…..

7 comments on “Ian Jack in Teh Grauniad of all places, on the value of subs

  1. You can’t use a word like “subs” without context.

    At first I thought your post was about subsidies, having just read your posts on renewables calculations. Then I thought maybe it was about subscriptions: the Times and Telegraph have plenty, the Guardian no doubt fewer. If you had ever written on football, it might be about substitutes. And then you use the word “subtle”, with its vexing silent “b”, just to really throw me off the scent. It was only when I clicked through to the article that the meaning became apparent.

  2. I thought it was about Trident or the Astute.

    There’s a word you got to be careful of.

    Of course there is no way the Guardian would make sense on submarines. None.

  3. Mr Redacto agrees that numeracy is a problem and has lost count of the times he has had to poke people in the eye because they don’t understand, for example, the difference between a change in percentage and percentage points. Regrettably, errors around orders of magnitude are common too. Mr Redacto well remembers a talk given to sub editorial colleagues by that Professor David Speigelhalter, who is a clever and amusing fellow, about how not to misuse statistics and numbers. Would that the reporters, some of whom don’t know how many potatoes make three, had been there too.

    Much amusement to be had in the matter of submarines and Mr Redacto’s line of work. He comments elsewhere as oneofoursubsismissing.

  4. Customer of mine was wibbling about units some time ago. This is drug concentrations we are talking about mind you, so pretty important. Somehow the units provided by the lab didn’t make it to the statisticians so didn’t end up in the analysis. A discussion followed about what the concentrations were until a final decision was reached, the concentrations were (reassuringly) in pg/L not mg/L. Superbrain then commented that that was effectively a 1:1 conversion. No one has had the guts to tell him he is 9 orders of magnitude out.

    And of course superbrain is doing a really important “core function” job that doubtless can’t be offshored to India, whereas the rest of us are just drones. Your health in their hands.

  5. My ex went to some environmental (emphasis on the “mental”) meeting a while back, and they were swapping “energy saving tips for the home”. Burning the magazines they got them from as fuel was the most useful tip, but unfortunately not one that was brought up until she came home and asked if I had any suggestions.

    Apparently someone there said that plugged in power supplies could use up to hundreds of megawatts of power, and they all sat around nodding. My snort of derision and response of “that explains why each street has its own nuclear power plant” earned me some time on the couch, as did the look I gave her when she responded to that by “Well she obviously meant hundreds of megawatts a year.” Orders of magnitude, people, it’s not that difficult.

  6. Matthew: I’m sure you know this, but I thought I’d point out that watts are a measure of the rate of energy transfer, so the time period is irrelevant. If I have a power supply using 100W and let it run for a year then it’s still only using 100W (though a lot more joules).

    Ignorance of physics is a less important issue for journalists than is lack of numeracy, but it can still lead to some very bad reporting.

  7. Anon: That’s why the look I gave her when she “clarified” with “megawatts a year” earned me penalty couch time.

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