Gut-checking American math

About ten days ago, headlines proclaimed that U.S. students are worse at math than their counterparts in Vietnam. This development hardly qualifies as surprising. But forget verifiable statistics – I’ve got anecdotes!

I couldn’t avoid learning of the storm that buried Jerusalem this week – at one point, it seemed every single photograph on my newsfeed was a mixture of snow and sandstone.

But not everyone has the same direct access Israelis through social media, so the American media has to cover it for them. And sometimes, something gets lost in translation — and I don’t mean from the Hebrew.

Here’s Newser’s account of what’s going on:

Jerusalem, meanwhile, has been hit with three feet of snow, knocking out power and closing roads—and officials today warned that the worst was yet to come. “We are expecting a second storm triple the size of the one we’ve seen now,” one municipality spokesman said, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Let’s see… Jerusalem already got three feet, and is bracing for a second storm three times as big… so that brings the total to 12 feet? That number is almost inconceivably large for an urban area. If Newser’s report is correct, it’s unclear why they titled this article “Cairo Gets First Snow in 100+ Years” and not “Jerusalem about to be buried in a literal Snowmageddon.”

As should be completely evident to anyone paying any amount of attention, the answer is clear: there’s simply no way in hell that Jerusalem actually got three feet of snow. For one thing, as I said, I’ve seen the pictures, and I’ve seen three feet of snow (thank you, Nemo), and what’s popping up in my newsfeed is no three feet of snow. In three feet of snow, you don’t venture home – you just crash on your friend’s couch. In three feet of snow, you walk along the tops of parked cars. The snow in Jerusalem is nowhere near three feet. Yet.

For another thing, my last year in Philadelphia, the city set a record with over 100 inches of snow — that number was accumulated over an entire season, and still only made it about 70% of the way to 12 feet! There’s simply no way Jerusalem is going to get a record-setting season’s worth of snow in Philadelphia over a single weekend.

So where did Newser come up with three feet? I suspect the answer does bear some resemblance to the truth. According to Accuweather:

Snowfall amounts have been varied across the city and surrounding area with as much as 30 cm.

Newser doesn’t cite this source in particular, but I’d be willing to bet someone over at Newser saw 30 cm and automatically translated that as 3 feet. A very metric approach (i.e., factor of 10), but you still fail.

The mistake is egregious for a couple of reasons. For one, Americans live in a world inhabited by people who use the metric system; we should probably at least be aware that it’s necessary to account for that in an intelligent way. For two, this number somehow managed to get past the editor. I understand not fact-checking every single item in every single story, but some things ought to just jump off the page. The very thought of 12 feet of snow falling in Jerusalem is one of them.

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3 thoughts on “Gut-checking American math”

  1. There’s a little bit of irony in the fact that this is an article about stupid American math, and you wrote that 100 inches was 5/6 of 12 feet. A very metric approach, indeed.

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    1. Irony, indeed. It was a mistake – but not the kind you think. That calculation about Philadelphia was at one point right *after* the line you quoted, and was meant to be a joke. But then I rearranged things and never went back to fix it. Sad face :-/ both for the ruined joke and looking silly.

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