numbers don’t misuse numbers.
People do. Just ask Brian W. Kernighan.
A professor of computer science at
Princeton University, Kernighan has
written a new book called Millions,
Billions, Zillions: Defending Yourself
in a World of Too Many Numbers
(Princeton University Press). The
book features math errors Kernighan
collected from other published
works. One common error he notes is
confusing millions and billions and
percentage and percentage points.
One of the whoppers he found
came from Staying Safe at School,
a 2011 book by Chester and Tammy
Quarles. The authors wrote: “Ev-
ery year since 1950, the number of
American children killed with guns
“That statement doesn’t stand up
to much scrutiny,” says Kernighan,
76. “Suppose a single child was killed
by gunfire in 1950. Then there would
be two in 1951, four in 1952, over a
thousand by 1960, over a million by
1970, a billion by 1980 and a trillion
by 1990,” he writes.
The book offers suggestions on
how to recognize invalid claims using
sixth-grade arithmetic, such as rea-
soning backward from a conclusion.
For example, in 2004, a New Jersey
newspaper reported: “Shutting down
your computer and monitor overnight
rather than running them 24 hours a
day will save $88 a day.”
If true, that
would mean an
ings of more
than $30,000 a
The paper ran
that the actual
be $88 a year.
“The problem with math is it’s poorly taught,”
says the Princeton resident, “but I
think people can get better at it.”
Most students can tell you
what they did in school today.
student can explain why. A
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