Significant digits? Take II

Subject: Significant digits? Take II
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 14 Nov 2000 08:34:34 -0500

Katie Kearns, responding to my tongue in cheek "my colleague with a PhD in
statistics agreed with me. So there!", observed: <<Bah.. what does a
statistician know? ;) >>

"Lies, damn lies, and statistics?" Extra points if you know the source of
the quote. <g> (Actually, the author is eluding me right now. It'll come to
me eventually.)

<<The zeros to the left don't count. (See other responses discussing the
scientific notation)>>

Though it's true that zeros _often_ don't count as significant figures, you
have to look beyond that simple rule. If the number is 0.00123, and no other
numbers are involved that have a different pattern (i.e., all numbers
resemble 0.00XYZ), then there's no question that there are only three
significant figures: X, Y, and Z. But let's say you have two or more numbers
with different patterns: if the author presents 0.00123 and 0.04123, the
picture changes dramatically: now the first number actually has four
significant figures, to match the number used in the second number. Using
the logic expressed for scientific notation, the numbers become 0.123x10^-2,
and 4.123x10^-2, and it's clear that both have four significant figures, not
three. (Whether the second number should have been rounded to three figures
is a different discussion; it might well have to be, depending on the

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Arthur C. Clarke had suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology
would be indistinguishable from magic--referring to a possible encounter
with an alien civilization--but if a science journalist had one
responsibility above all else, it was to keep Clarke's Law from applying to
human technology in human eyes."--Greg Egan, "Distress"

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