Maybe it's the harvest moon. Or maybe journalists have just lost their calculators -- and common sense -- lately. But this week has brought three candidates for serious Numerazzy awards:
Ephraim Schwartz, InfoWorld
He penned the following:
Burlington Coat Factory has saved anywhere from 300 percent to 500 percent by using StarOffice instead of Microsoft Office, Prince says, and so far it has worked flawlessly, including reading macros from Excel, PowerPoint, and Word documents.
Since it's unlikely that even in its most generous of moments that Burlington Coat Factory would give me or you more than 100 percent savings -- in other words free -- these are truly outstanding numbers. Better go out and buy the stock because the company's obviously printing money. Oh wait, if the chief information officer of Burlington actually said that, maybe it's time to short the stock because if that's the math they're using in the executive suite, the results are unlikely to be good.
The (Columbia) State
My local paper made a common, but really unexcusable, mistake in writing about former publisher Ben Morris after Morris' death (Morris had been one of the forces behind getting South Carolina to adopt liquor minibottles):
Voters settled the liquor argument in a November 1972 referendum. A half million cast ballots and approved minibottles by a 3-2 margin.
It's a 3-2 ratio. The margin is the difference in the number of votes.
It's an annoying bit of numerical illiteracy that I hear every morning from NPR's Ann Taylor as she tells me -- apparently parroting some wire-service story instead of editing it -- that gainers outpaced losers on the stock market by a "xx to xx margin." C'mon Ann, commit some journalism here and get it right.
One of my current students
He wrote this in a commentary about student IDs, whose replacement price a few years ago went from $5 to $25:
In 2001, if a student lost their CarolinaCard - or "ID card" as they were called in those days - they were fined a mere $5, but during fall 2002, the fines were increased 500 percent. USC should simply increase the fines by 500 percent once more - bringing it to $125, for those of you without calculators.
Well, I have a calculator, and it says the increase in each case is 400 percent, not 500 percent. While $25 is 500 percent of $5, it is a 400 percent increase. Likewise with $125 and $25.
These are the sorts of errors it's easy to shrug off. Yet they are the sort that tell folks who know what they're doing -- the kind we want to buy our papers and listen to our public radio shows (because they have the money to donate!) -- that we don't know what we are doing. Or as John Russial wrote, "Credibility dies the death of a thousand nicks, scrapes and cuts."