# How Connie can't count

I'll admit to being a little bit anal when it comes to math. I'm not sure "anal" is the right word, but I do expect numbers to make sense and people who can't make sense of numbers to stay as far away from them as possible. So, I want to squeeze in one last "the press is so stupid" post before the month is through.

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March 26, 2009

I'll admit to being a little bit anal when it comes to math. I'm not sure "anal" is the right word, but I do expect numbers to make sense and people who can't make sense of numbers to stay as far away from them as possible. So, I want to squeeze in one last "the press is so stupid" post before the month is through.

The story has two chapters. Chapter one stems from last week, and relates to a print media story. It was an auto review, and the subject was the new (I'm presuming) Honda Civic Hybrid. The writer's point seemed to be primarily that while it was a nice car, only bleeding-heart tree-huggers should buy it, because it cost about \$8000 more than the regular Civic and you'd wait a long time before saving enough on gas to pay for the difference.

Now, I don't have the precise numbers in front of me, but I did a back-of-an-envelope calculation and what I found was that, presuming an average price for unleaded regular of \$3.00 (higher than today's price, but not unreasonable as a projection for the next couple of years), it would take about 36,000 miles to save that \$8000 price difference. I don't know about you, but I keep a car a lot longer than 36,000 miles. Most people do. At least, most people who buy rather than lease. But the article didn't even mention lease rates, so go figure.

Then, this morning ... chapter two. I'm listening, on NPR, to a bit about how prepared foods (in this case, cookies) which label themselves as containing "zero grams trans-fat" can, in fact, contain trans-fats. So long as the amount is less than one-half gram per serving (as defined in the nutritional content label), FDA regulations allow the number of grams to be rounded down to zero. No big surprise to anyone paying attention.

But apparently the radio reporter wasn't paying attention, because after bringing in the information that negative health effects (increased low-density lipo-proteins or "bad cholesterol") were detected at 8 grams of trans-fat per day, she promptly concluded that you'd have to eat a whole package of cookies to ever reach that level. Hmmm, ... half a gram per cookie divided into 8 grams is a whole package? Like, the package only contains 16 or 17 cookies? (FWIW, we're talking Oreos and Chips Ahoy here -- their packages typically contain a lot more cookies than that.)

Maybe it's just me, but I think if you're a professional, paid to do a story on a fuel-efficient automobile or the nutritional value of food, you should be expected to do basic arithmetic, and to draw a defensible conclusion from the answer. If that's not a reasonable expectation, then there's little hope for meaningful coverage of global climate disruption, where analysis depends not just on algebra but -- whisper it with me -- multivariate regression and even ... calculus!

Maybe that's part of the reason climate-change deniers get coverage far out of proportion to their information content -- their story is so much easier for the numerically challenged to recite. If so, we need to increase the math requirements for our journalism majors.

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