Professor John Webb of the University of Cape Town has done much pioneering work in the teaching of maths and has been active in organising Maths Olympiads in South Africa.   Today I was fortunate to be able to listen to him address the University of the Third Age on “Maths in the Media: how Newspapers Handle Maths Stories”

The audience, who only needed a knowledge of High School Maths to appreciate the nuances of these factual blunders, were entertained by the lecturer’s examples of mathematical ignorance or sloppiness demonstrated by newspaper journalists writing for both specialist and general publications.

Fun with Numbers

I have been attending a monthly meeting offered by our local U3A entitled “Fun with Numbers.”   A small group of enthusiasts who are fascinated by the intricacies of mathematical logic have been meeting on a monthly basis for the past 6 years.   Our collection is headed by a retired maths teacher named Alison Kitto who has the capacity to engage us in fascinating puzzles around the intricacies of numbers, so this was a talk in which I was definitely interested in attending.

Journalism and Maths

Professor Webb introduced us to the topic by quoting an oft admitted shortcoming confessed by journalists who may self-effacingly state, “I was never very good at maths.”   This naive statement was amply demonstrated many times during his presentation.   No journalist would be able to get away with similar gaffs were they made within the grammatical rules of the English language.   The lack of general awareness among the public of these omnipresent inaccuracies, seems to imply that most people who casually read numbers do not actually attend to their significance.

Different Currencies

“The price that Elvis Presley payed for his home of Graceland was about R731237,”   read an announcement in The Times, 17 August 2010.   A somewhat innocuous sum of money, but meaningless when you consider that South African currency was not quoted in Rands in that era, but in Pounds. The country introduced decimalisation only in 1961, which was when the Pound became the Rand.  In addition when a six digit figure is quoted it is somewhat meaningless to prefix it with the description of ‘about!’, as was done in this example.

So let’s try and work out what the logic may have been to reach the sum quoted above.    We know that he pound value of Graceland in 1957 was £36 600.   When South Africa decimalised its currency in 1961 the South African Pound became two Rands.  Multiplying 36 600 by two we get 73 000.   It seems this must have been the logic behind the figure – however the calculation remains incorrect by a factor of ten!

Drinking Straws

There has been much publicity recently about the accumulation of plastic drinking straws which have collected in the depths of the oceans.   So much so that any restaurateur who has a minimal conscience about pollution would be offering his customers paper straws by now.  The statement quoted claimed that, “A person uses 38,000 straws in his life-time.   Let us look at this figure a little more closely.   Say you live to the age of 100.    There are 365 days in the year, so if you were to use 1 straw a day you would use 365 x 100 = 36500 straws in your lifetime.    That requires a dedication to drinking through a straw once a day every day of your life. You still have 1500 extra straws to use during the year!

Language Errors

The Pan African Mathematics Olympiad hosts many countries which are French Speaking, for example Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Ivory Coast.    It is interesting to note the extent that Africa was colonised by the French. The French language is spoken by an estimated 120 million people in Africa, and these francophone countries are spread amongst across Africa’s 24 different political entities.   Instructions for the local Olympiad are therefore translated into French leading the words “Pan African” to be translated as ‘casserole’

Future Projections of Age

This one was particularly intriguing for me as I am so often reading about the projections for the number of people who will be suffering from Alzheimer’s in the future.   In a 2013 publication it was estimated that, “By 2025 more than 1.2 million people in the world will be older than 120 years of age.”   A pretty innocuous projection until you look at the statement a little more closely.   People who are 120 years old in 2025, would need to be 108 in 2013.   However if you look up the statistics of world population figures, there were only 10 people alive in 2013 who were 108 years old. Most people reading this exaggerated statement would not stop long enough to think about its inaccuracy.

Climate Change Denialism

It makes me wonder how many statistics about Climate Change would be contrived inaccurately to create the impression the writer wished to present.    Those who promoting the Denialism of Climate Change could well be reading the type of reports where figures are being quoted with no logical basis.   The naïve can be so readily influenced by sloppy journalism and could be quoting figures with no factual basis to support their non-scientific perspective. Maybe this is something about which I could do some research!