Many journalists struggle with even basic arithmetic

We journalists are not known for our mathematical ability. We took to words, perhaps, as a way of eschewing numbers.


(Eschewing numbers, by the way, is not the same as crunching numbers. "Eschew" means to avoid, and it is pronounced the way it looks: es-CHOO. Not es-SHOE, the way we sometimes hear it. Either way, whenever someone says that word, I always want to reply, "God bless you!")

Back to math. Or, as they say in Great Britain, maths. That makes sense. The word is mathematics, so of course the shortened form should be maths. The Brits might not understand the English language, but they know their maths.

As I said, journalists have trouble with basic arithmetic. Even a simple percentage throws us. I've been in on many conversations like this:

A: "This report says 10,000 residents were victims of crime this year, which is a 15 percent rise from last year. So how many victims were there last year?"

B: "I don't think you can tell from the information you've got."

A: "Are you sure? It sounds like it should be easy to figure out. Maybe there were 15 victims last year."

B: "Yeah, that, or 15,000."

A: "But that's more than this year, and didn't crime go up?"

B: " Maybe we can ask a math professor at the college."

Even simple sentences give us fits. For instance, when coaches say they want their players to give 110 percent, we take them at their word.

Likewise, we never can get decimals right. The first thing children are taught on Decimal Day in elementary school is that if a number is less than 1, it gets a zero before the decimal: 0.2 and 0.08 and so on. Journalists seem to have slept through Decimal Day en masse, so we think all such numbers are baseball batting averages, which don't require the zero: .298.

The other day I came across a story that said a man had been working 24/7 for two weeks. Shouldn't that be 24/14, because there are 14 days in two weeks?

As I look at the overused expression "24/7," however, I realize it needs some work.

A fraction, after all, is just division: 1/2 means 1 divided by 2, which gives 0.5 (you need that zero, remember?). By the same reasoning, 24/7 can be read as 24 divided by 7, which works out to 3.429, if you round it off.

So, the next time you're overworked, tell your boss you're tired of working 3.429. He might ignore you, but just maybe he'll think your brain is fried and will give you some time off.

Isn't maths wonderful?

HIT THE LIGHTS: Recently I gained a year and lost about 10.

The day after my birthday, we were to eat at our daughter's apartment. My wife said we had to go to the apartment complex's clubhouse, though, because Kylie didn't have enough chairs for us and a few other relatives.

When we walked in, the lights got bright and a bunch of people shouted, "Surprise!"

I immediately realized the truth: I was dead and seeing all the people I had ever known.

It took a minute for me to comprehend that my wife, daughter and daughter-in-law had worked 3.429 to plan a surprise party -- a first for me. There were balloons, a huge cake, friends, relatives, gifts, food. I was blind-sided.

It was great, but what I took away from the experience is the realization that I will never again be able to trust my wife.



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