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Math even a Journalist should be able to understand

Permanent Linkby wisconsin_cur on Thu Sep 03, 2009 1:21 am

Through the week I listen to at least 90 minutes of Bloomberg radio every day. I became a regular listener when I noticed that they reported the 7/7 bombings in London 30 - 40 minutes before CNN and other outlets had anything helpful to say. I stay because the morning interview show (Bloomberg Surveillance) is often genuinely helpful and smart, even when I disagree with the guest.

This morning, however, I had blood coming out of my ears. It is not what they were saying as they, like every other news outlet talked of BP's "giant" oil strike in the Gulf of Mexico, it what was being left unsaid.

The story as told in the Financial Times

BP, the UK energy group, has discovered a “giant” oilfield in the Gulf of Mexico that shows a new frontier opening up for US oil production.

The Tiber field, in more than 1,200m of water about 250 miles south-east of Houston, is one of the biggest discoveries in recent years. It is thought to hold at least 3bn barrels of oil – of which about 500m would be recoverable with today’s technology – and could be significantly larger.


Now I am ashamed to confess that I spent my late teens and earliest 20's trying my hardest to avoid math. My bachelor's degree is in history and my master's did not involve a single math course either, but I do remember how to multiply and divide by 10 through the moving of the decimal point. Let's cast a critical eye at this "giant" find.

The FT reports that 500million barrels are recoverable by today's technology. Let's be optimistic (and make the math even easier) by doubling this to say 1 billion barrels will be recovered. The world uses 85 million barrels a day or 850 million barrels every 10 days (move the decimal point) or a little over 1 billion barrels in 12 days. This "giant" buys the world 12 days of oil consumption. Even if we were to run the number just for the United States which uses 20 million barrels of oil per day (200 million every 10 days, multiply both by 5 to discover we use 1 billion barrels every 50 days) and the find still seems rather insignificant.

The media is, of course, just parroting the news release sent to them by BP and many of those news outlets have at least enough sense to put the adjective giant in quotes but many of the people I have spent time talking about peak oil with will not hear the quotes when Anderson Cooper repeats the story or when they catch wind of it at the top of the hour on the BBC. Even if they read the story in the FT, which did the best job I could find in laying out actual details of the find to a general audience, I doubt they will pick up on the cues of the quotes around giant nor will they find the context to understand the technical meaning behind the use of the phrase "giant" to describe the find.

This find is not that big of a deal but by giving it the coverage that it has received apart from the context to communicate that the find is worthy of coverage only due to the depth of the drilling and the difficulty of future extraction, the media does a dis-service to true understanding. If the newspapers are not there to help the public to understand the world around them, why exactly do we keep them around?

I love journalists and journalism. When writing is done well, it is both beautiful and informative. I do not expect them to be math wizards or have a minor in geology (don't even get me stated on how difficult it may be to actually get any of this oil out) but they should be able to multiply and divide by 10 as well as understand the context of the news item well enough to communicate it to the general public. Then all they will need is to be courageous enough to name things by their right name loudly enough that we all can hear. I am afraid, however, that it is this courage and not an understanding multiplication which is lacking.
Last edited by wisconsin_cur on Thu Sep 03, 2009 2:09 am, edited 1 time in total.

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“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Re: Math even a Journalist should be able to understand

Permanent Linkby wisconsin_cur on Thu Sep 03, 2009 1:50 am

Of course not long after I write this I go hunting around for some more information and find a very similar critique at the bottom of the page of the FT.

http://blogs.ft.com/energy-source/2009/ ... -is-giant/

My hat is off to the FT.
http://www.senecasdog.blogspot.com

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” J.R.R. Tolkien

Sevareid's Law: "The leading cause of problems is solutions."
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RE: Math even a Journalist should be able to understand

Permanent Linkby TWilliam on Mon Oct 05, 2009 12:36 am

wisconsin_cur wrote:but they should be able to multiply and divide by 10 as well as understand the context of the news item well enough to communicate it to the general public.

Surely you've noticed by now Cur that the media (to say nothing of our public 'educational' system) specializes in precisely the de-contextualization of information? Makes it much easier to subsequently re-contextualize it to serve specific ends...
We all feed on tragedy; it's like blood to a vampire. Vicariously, I live, while the whole world dies. Much better you than I. ~ Tool, Vicarious
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