Innumeracy in TECHWR=L

Subject: Innumeracy in TECHWR=L
From: Stan Brown <stbrown -at- NACS -dot- NET>
Date: Wed, 10 Apr 1996 20:57:47 -0100

Phil Block posted from the 8 April issue of Computerworld (not the 1 April
issue, as I thought from the content):

>U.S. President - 176.550
>Firefighter - 110.936
>Electrical engineer - 36.448

(Don't take what follows as criticism of Phil: I know that what he
quoted he quoted light-heartedly. But the material does point out some
things we should be wary of, in my opinion.)

There is a tendency to look at something with numbers and assume that
it actually means something -- and the more numbers, the more meaning.

I don't know how those "Stress scores" were determined, and it doesn't
matter. It simply passes belief that any quantity concerning the human
psyche could be determined to six significant figures, which is less
than one part in a hundred thousand. Yet quoting figures to such a
precision gives them a spurious authority.

A moment's thought will show that even two digits is probably silly,
but three digits certainly is. Look at the last two lines I quoted:
everything after the decimal points is certainly just noise; probably
the "6" before each decimal point is as well.

Why do I post this? Because as word mavens, we are sometimes in danger
of accepting figures uncritically. Part of a competent writer's job
must be to quote figured so that they show the amount of significance
they actually possess. Those who would like to know more should run
out and get _Innumeracy_ by John Allen Paulos.

Stan Brown, Oak Road Systems, Cleveland, Ohio USA +1 216 371-0043
email: stbrown -at- nacs -dot- net Web:
Can't find FAQ lists? See my Web page for instructions, or email me.

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