Thursday, May 13, 2010

Trivial Mistakes Have Non-Trivial Consequences

I was just reading a National Geographic article, which paints a rather gloomy and doomy picture of the ongoing oil spill/leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Here are two passages that stopped me short:
For instance, at the depth of the gushing wellhead—5,000 feet (about 1,500 meters)—containment technologies have to withstand pressures of up to 40,000 pounds per square inch (about 28,100 kilograms per square meter), he said.
The scientists discovered a "tremendous" amount of oiled sediment remained on the Saudi coast 12 years after the spill—about 3 million cubic feet (856,000 cubic meters).
Okay, I get that most Americans don't know squat about the metric system, but that first figure is off by a factor of ten thousand (and kilograms measure mass, not force), and the second is off by a factor of ten. For the first one, try this link; for the second, this one. Granted, the first one is a bit trickier- you have to know that one kilogram under the influence of earth's gravity exerts a force of one newton (and it would be helpful to know that one newton of force applied to a square meter is also known as the unit of pressure called a pascal)- but still. When you get your numbers off by a factor of ten thousand, or even ten, what that says to me as a reader is that you have no comprehension what you're talking about. It also says you make no effort to double check your work. See how easy is to get the right numbers? You can't be bothered to do even that much?

That makes me feel I can't trust any of what you're saying. Yes, those are easy sorts of mistakes to make, but they're just as easy to check and correct. The author of this article is presumably a "professional" "journalist" who actually got paid money for this "job." It's one thing for an amateur or volunteer to have no real idea what they're doing, and make shoddy mistakes, but Nat Geo, your credibility with me has been eroding for some time now. This sort of thing is why.

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