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Math doesn't add up for some journalists

July 10, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

A Shepherd University mathematics professor named Victor Hughes III sent us a good-natured e-mail recently, pointing out a math error on our part, in which decimals were confused with percents.

As I read it, all I could do was shake my head remorsefully. If Professor Hughes only knew the half of it.

It's a well-documented fact that 66 percent (or three-fifths) of all journalists get into the profession because of a deep, abiding love for the printed word and for the thrill that comes with chasing down a good news story.

The remaining 47 percent, my group, gets into journalism because we wish to come in contact with math about as frequently as Halley's Comet orbits the sun.

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Yes, we love to frown on those who fail to surround a semi-colon with independent clauses. But at the same time, we couldn't calculate the length of a straight line it you'd spot us a yardstick.

Still, there were times way back in the days when I was a reporter when a brush with math would force me into performing a drive-by equation.

I might need to know, for example: "An increase from 115 to 129 is an increase of what percent?"

You should have seen it.

There is a certain camaraderie in journalism that lies just under the surface, but manifests when one of us is confronted with a math problem. Then we all come together as brothers, much as firefighters are disposed to save each other from a falling arch.

So six or eight of us would all huddle around a desk, each working on some different aspect of the problem and, as a general thing, coming up with six or eight different answers in the process.

Someone would have a eureka moment and you would hear stuff like, "OK, OK, I got it. An increase of 100 to 150 would be a 50 percent increase, right, so an increase of 100 to 125 must be a 25 percent increase - 129 is more than 125, but not as much more as 115 is more than 100. So that means it has to be less than a 25 percent increase. A 10 percent increase would be to 110, so ..."

"But 115 is more than 100, so that doesn't necessarily mean that .."

"I know, I know. But stay with me here. Ten percent of 115 would be 11.5, so an increase of 10 percent would be 115 plus 11.5, right? And that would be 126.5, which is pretty close to 129 so I think we can go with it, or maybe we should go with 11 percent, but I don't think it's quite as much as 12, unless ..."

Like extracting a rotting tooth, we would reach back into the memory of painful, elementary school math classes where we might be able to pull out a fragment of a formula duly learned and even more duly forgotten.

We remembered that some number over some number equaled X over 100. So we would use this formula for any math question that presented itself, from figuring a percent to calculating the circumference of Newt Gingrich.

We didn't know what these "some numbers" were supposed to be, so we kept plugging in different variables until we came up with an answer that seemed reasonable.

Of course now with the Internet, it's no longer that big a chore - thank you very much, onlineconversion.com.

Still, any time you see me presenting numbers to make my case, you would be wise to check my work.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on www.antpod.com.

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