I coined the phrase ‘Numeric Incompetence Syndrome’ a while back, and yesterday an article in my local newspaper delivered another glaring example. In summary…
South Australia’s connection to the national electrical grid is to be enhanced with a new 900km interconnector to New South Wales and Victoria. The capital cost is expected to be $1.53 billion. The article states: “To cover that, households would pay $9 a year in SA and $5 in NSW.”
Assuming an average household size of 2.7 persons (as in 2016 nationally), there are about 0.65 million households in SA and 3.11 million in NSW. So the total annual amount recovered from households would be ($9 x 0.65M) + ($5 x 3.11M) = $21.4 million. Even allowing for future population growth, this comes nowhere near “covering” an investment of $1.53 billion: to amortise such a sum over a 20-year life at a discount rate of 5%pa would cost $123 million per year, before considering any maintenance costs. So that’s error No.1.
The article goes on to say, “[ElectraNet] estimates the project would deliver overall benefits of $924 million over 20 years…” but adds that “the Australian Energy Regulator … has downsized the project’s 20-year benefit to $269 million.”
Who, in their right mind, would invest $1.53 billion in something that will deliver benefits of only $924 million over 20 years?! How can any sub-editor not see that this cannot be true?! Perhaps the word “net” was omitted, but surely “overall” was inserted to make clear that the writer means gross benefits.
My stroppiness is going off the scale. Journalism is not just about regurgitating people’s press releases; it has to involve some critical thought, some fact-checking, some exercise of common sense for heaven’s sake!
I have emailed the Editor of the newspaper with a link to this post and an invitation to respond and/or to publish a correction.
Here is a direct quotation from my local newspaper:
“Aboriginal women are at least 32 times more likely to be hospitalised because of an assault by their partner than non-indigenous women.
“They are at least three times as likely to have experienced violence in the past year than non-indigenous women.
“All this despite comprising a far smaller proportion of the population.”
The writer (Lauren Novak) is drawing attention to important statistics and goes on to suggest ameliorative measures. But she spoils it for me in that third paragraph. Having correctly compared rates of hospitalisation and exposure to violence, she then demonstrates a failure to understand what a rate is.
I don’t want to pick on Ms Novak, who is a much-awarded professional journalist whom I have never met. This is just one example of what I have now dubbed Numeric Incompetence Syndrome (NIS). It seems to afflict journalists and sub-editors disproportionately, but perhaps that’s because their condition is on public display more often than other sufferers’.
I’m thinking about an annual award for the most egregious manifestation of NIS: a Nissy to sit alongside the well-established and eagerly-awaited Stroppy**. What do you think?
Since writing this I have seen another howler in my local newspaper (one of Rupert Murdoch’s, by the way): a little matter of a displaced decimal point in a graphic summary of the South Australian State Budget, showing annual revenue and expenditure to be A$1.9 billion instead of A$19 billion. Now that’s the sort of thing a sub-editor should pick up, don’t you think?
** The Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle, awarded every January, for which nominations are always open.
I just read this headline in an Australian newspaper: “The mercury could plummet by as much as half this weekend.” In the same story was the caption: “Temperatures could halve in some places.”
This is stroppy-making balderdash!
Having read the article it was clear that its author was referring to a drop from 20°C to 10°C. If the Fahrenheit scale were used, the drop would be 36%, not 50%. But the only sensible scale to use in this way is the Kelvin scale, in which zero corresponds to absolute zero – colder than which it is impossible to go. On that scale the drop would be a mere 3.4%. That wouldn’t make much of a headline, would it?
This isn’t an isolated instance. Journalists seem to lack basic scientific understanding, and their sub-editors are more interested in concocting clever puns (“Lion Park Roaring Success”) than ensuring accuracy.
Here’s another example. Elon Musk is going to build the world’s biggest lithium battery in South Australia, my home state. It has been variously described in the press as a 100MW battery and a 100MWh battery. The former makes no sense. A watt is a rate of flow of energy. A watt-hour is a unit of energy analogous to a volume of fuel. In fact 1 litre of diesel oil contains about 10,000 watt-hours (or 10kWh) of energy.
This is not actually me
When I use the rowing machine at the gym I can maintain an energy flow of about 140W (or 0.14kW). So if I rowed for a living, selling the energy I generate for 23 cents per kWh (which is roughly what I pay for electricity in my home) I would earn 0.14 x 0.23 x 40 = $1.29 for a 40-hour week.