Wick Communications

How much is that?

In Writing on 3 Feb 2012 at 9:42 am

Courtesy kokogiak media

Here is an actual correction that ran in the New York Times last week. (The story was about the ways in which viruses evolve to keep us sick.):

A previous version of this article misstated the probability that all four mutations for lambda viruses would arise at once. It is roughly one in a thousand trillion trillion, not one in a thousand billion billion.

Sometimes I’m off by one or two points in my stories, but rarely by factors of a trillion.

Someone smarter than I should write a provable theory about the likelihood of error in any story that includes the word “billion.” It would go something like this: The likelihood of reporter error in any story that includes numbers goes up proportional to the number of digits in said number until the writer reaches 10 digits, when error is virtually assured.

Can you fathom a billion? As a numeral, it looks like this: 1,000,000,000. Pretty impressive, no? Now multiply that by a thousand to represent one trillion. It is literally mind boggling. Can any of us really get our heads around what it means to be a billionaire or how far a billion light years would be?

I found this interesting project on the Web, designed to help you visualize large numbers, in this case pennies. Kind of fun to look at … though I have no idea whether it’s accurate. …

Such numbers are necessarily round and imprecise. Question their use. Anyone who pulls a number like that out of a hat is probably not being literal, though such numbers sure have a way of looking exact in the New York Times. Keep an eye on politicians and bureaucrats; they love big, round numbers symbolizing nothing.

Anyway, be careful with numbers. Especially really big ones.



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