Numbers, though, are problematic. A great many people come to the writing and editing game having managed to indulge their aversion for all matters mathematical or scientific. They’re great with words—their passion—but having once decided they were math-impaired (whether that’s true or they just suffered abysmal elementary instruction in the subject), they continue through life not worrying too much if they get the fact right where numbers are concerned.
Don’t get me wrong. Fact checking is a big deal at the New Yorker. They’re quite careful with names and dates and places and quotations. But…well, let me quote the paragraph that prompted this post:
This year, Americans will consume close to four trillion kilowatt hours of electricity. In addition, we will burn through a hundred and forty-three billion gallons of gasoline, which at current retail prices will cost us some three hundred and sixty billion dollars, and twenty-six billion gallons of jet fuel, worth fifty billlion dollars. To heat our homes and businesses this winter, we will purchase sixty-two billion dollars’ worth of natural gas and heating oil, and just to grill our weenies we will buy some seven hundred and seventy-one million dollars’ worth of charcoal briquettes. In 2007, total energy expenditures in the U.S. will come to more than a quadrillion dollars, or roughly a tenth of the country’s gross domestic product.Where to start?
Well, let me start with a copyediting nit. Where I come from, the word and does not belong in expressions like “a hundred and forty-three billion.” However, at least and was used consistently. So I suppose that’s a regional difference and I should shut up about that.
But let’s look at the numbers. That quadrillion got my attention. So I looked up the gross domestic product (one quick check on Google, no trip to the library required). It turns out that our GDP is on the order of twelve or thirteen trillion dollars. A quadrillion is a thousand trillions. A tenth of our GDP is somewhat above a trillion dollars, not a thousand times as much. But what’s a few zeros between friends?
Let’s see if the numbers add up correctly, even if we knock off the extra zeros.
|“Four trillion kilowatt hours of electricity”|
at roughly $0.10 each
|Natural gas and heating oil||$62,000,000,000|
Having gone through that exercise, I’m not sure I want to spend the time to read the rest of the article, nor am I likely to give the magazine as much credence in the future as I have in the past.
What’s the lesson? The lesson is that if you aren’t sure of your facts and you don’t know how to check your facts, you need to let someone check them who is competent to do so. Otherwise, your own credibility suffers.
Words and numbers matter.