Monday, March 28, 2011

Just Number Psychology

So, I'm at work and, while waiting for a program to run, decide to bop on over to CNN's website to see what the latest developments in the ongoing nuclear drama were. The one article cited extremely high levels of radioactivity, indicating levels in the area of 1000 millisieverts.

As may have come through in prior writings, I'm a bit of a geek. I work with computers, so, it's almost a requirement. Part of being a tech-geek is understaning the concept of "units". Along with that is understanding what the various unit-modifiers mean. Now, while I'm not advocating the US going out and switching from our current measurment system to metric, I do appreciate (and understand) base-ten unit modifiers. So, when I see someone say the equivalent of "one thousand thousandths" (or one million millionths, for that matter), it makes my OCD senses tingel.

When I see that kind of units-abuse,  I have to wonder, "is the author just stupid or are they scare-mongering by using (apparently) bigger numbers?" I've had other geeks try to suggest that said authors might be trying to indicate precision, but that gets blown out of the water the moment a reporter couches things in terms of estimates or "about".

The vast majority of readers out there aren't going to know that 1000mSv is equivalent to 1Sv. Few people know what an Sv is to even begin to understand what an mSv or ╬╝Sv might mean. Worse, since many of the readers of CNN will be US readers with little to know background in the metric system, there won't be any automatic "milli equals one thousandth of something". No. All that most readers will see is "there's a thousand of these thingies happening every hour. That sounds like a LOT!" and, granted, it is, but no more than one of the base-unit would be.

No comments:

Post a Comment