**T**he [harebrained] proposal of Boris Johnson to return to so-called *imperial* measurements or units illustrates [beyond his usual flair for spinning out of yet-another-scandal] an all-too-common innumeracy of politicians (and possibly a lingering anti-French sentiment as metric units were introduced by the French Revolution), preferring to cater to their Brexit voters rather than realising the drawbacks and costs of a parallel system of measurements, as illustrated by the 1999 Orbiter crash. Does he plan to exit the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures as well?! Or does he expect an improvement in numeracy with the public using different bases (other than 10) at ~~ounce~~ once?!

## Archive for innumeracy

## BoJo’s return to no-future

Posted in Books, Kids with tags 20 May 1875, Boris Johnson, Brexit, Bureau international des poids et mesures, EU, European Union, French Revolution, imperial measures, innumeracy, Mars Climate Orbiter, metric units, NASA, UK politics on June 13, 2022 by xi'an## innumerazione

Posted in Kids, Statistics, Travel with tags Bastia, Corsica, Eiffel Tower, innumeracy, recycling, tourism nuisances on September 5, 2021 by xi'anWhile vacationing in Corsica, I spotted this poster all over town (Bastia). About the weight of recycled garbage in Corsica. Its congratulation smelled somewhat fishy and trying to argue the point with my family I looked at what it meant in meaningful units….

Since the weight of 8 Eiffel Towers is about 80,000 tons and there are about 340,000 people residing in Corsica, this means 235kg are recycled by an average Corsican (if the figure does not include agriculture, industry, and service recycling). Which sounds close to the national figures, when considering the average 580kg of personal garbage produced by the average French. However, this statistic does not account for the likely impact of tourists (like us) on the figures. Considering that there are about 3 million tourists visiting Corsica every year, with [the conservative figure of] an average stay of one week, assuming that they recycle as well, the figure per inhabitant gets down. (This impact can also be spotted in the raw [!] figures per month, which are triple in August, when the majority of tourists is visiting, than in March.) Hence the figure is not so conclusive…

## Is that a big number? [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics with tags big numbers, Book, book review, CHANCE, counting, Guesstimation, innumeracy, measurement, Oxford University Press, xkcd on July 31, 2018 by xi'an **A** book I received prior to its publication a few days ago from OXford University Press (OUP), as a book editor for CHANCE (*usual provisions apply:* the contents of this post will be more or less reproduced in my column in CHANCE when it appears). Copy that I found in my mailbox in Warwick last week and read over the (very hot) weekend.

The overall aim of this book by Andrew Elliott is to encourage numeracy (or fight innumeracy) by making sense of absolute quantities by putting them in perspective, teaching about log scales, visualisation, and divide-and-conquer techniques. And providing a massive list of examples and comparisons, sometimes for page after page… The book is associated with a fairly rich website, itself linked with the many blogs of the author and a myriad of other links and items of information (among which I learned of the recent and absurd launch of Elon Musk’s Tesla car in space! A première in garbage dumping…). From what I can gather from these sites, some (most?) of the material in the book seems to have emerged from the various blog entries.

“Length of River Thames (386 km) is 2 x length of the Suez Canal (193.3 km)”

Maybe I was too exhausted by heat and a very busy week in Warwick for our computational statistics week, the football 2018 World Cup having nothing to do with this, but I could not keep reading the chapters of the book in a continuous manner, suffering from massive information overdump! Being given thousands of entries kills [for me] the appeal of outing weight or sense to large and very large and humongous quantities. And the final vignette in each chapter of pairing of numbers like the one above or the one below

“Time since earliest writing (5200 y) is 25 x time since birth of Darwin (208 y)”

only evokes the remote memory of some kid journal I read from time to time as a kid with this type of entries (I cannot remember the name of the journal!). Or maybe it was a journal I would browse while waiting at the hairdresser’s (which brings back memories of endless waits, maybe because I did not like going to the hairdresser…) Some of the background about measurement and other curios carry a sense of Wikipediesque absolute in their minute details.

A last point of disappointment about the book is the poor graphical design or support. While the author insists on the importance of visualisation on grasping the scales of large quantities, and the webpage is full of such entries, there is very little backup with great graphs to be found in *“Is that a big number?”* Some of the pictures seem taken from an anonymous databank (where are the towers of San Geminiano?!) and there are not enough graphics. For instance, the fantastic graphics of xkcd conveying the xkcd money chart poster. Or about future. Or many many others…

While the style is sometimes light and funny, an overall impression of dryness remains and in comparison I much more preferred Kaiser Fung’s Numbers rule your world and even more both Guesstimation books!

## less-than-average illustration

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags average, innumeracy, outliers, Quételet, The New York Times on June 7, 2013 by xi'an**T**his Sunday morning, I was reading the NYT when I came upon this picture illustrating Stephanie Koontz’s tribune “when numbers mislead“, a rather dull summary of an unreferenced and impossible-to-google paper called “The Trouble With Averages” *[what about Quételet?!]* dealing with the impact of marriage(s) on happiness (and vice-versa). *[Funny enough, Andrew was telling me about this economist from Warwick working on happiness just yesterday night!]* I however wanted mostly to point out how a-statistical this picture was, from a meaningless Venn diagram (reminding me of Templeton!) to the notion of opposing average and variation, to outliers standing in the wrong place (intersection of whatever!). *[I do not think it is relevant to stress the innumeracy revealed by the column and its title!] *

## guesstimation (1+2)

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags book reviews, David McKay, Guesstimation, innumeracy, Le Monde, mathematical puzzle, New York city, numeracy, Princeton University Press, xkcd on November 9, 2012 by xi'an**I** received very recently this book, *Guesstimation 2.0*, written by Lawrence Weinstein from Princeton University Press for review in CHANCE and decided to check the first (2008 )volume, *Guesstimation*, co-written by Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam. (Discovering in the process that they both had a daughter named Rachel, like my daughter!)

**T**he title may be deemed to be very misleading for (unsuspecting) statisticians as, on the one hand, the book does not deal at all with estimation in our sense but with approximation to the right order of magnitude of an unknown quantity. It is thus closer to *Innumeracy* than to *Statistics for Dummies*, in that it tries to induce people to take the extra step of evaluating, even roughly, numerical amounts (rather than shying away from it or, worse, of trusting the experts!). For instance, *how much area could we cover with the pizza boxes Americans use every year?* About the area of New York City. (On the other hand, because *Guesstimation* forces the reader to quantify one’s guesses about a certain quantity, it has a flavour of prior elicitation and thus this guesstimation could well pass for prior estimation!)

**I**n about 80 questions, Lawrence Weinstein [with John A. Adam in *Guesstimation*] explains how to roughly “estimate”, i.e. guess, quantities that seem beyond a layman’s reach. Not all questions are interesting, in fact I would argue they are mostly uninteresting *per se* (e.g., what is the surface of toilet paper used in the U.S.A. over one year? how much could a 1km meteorite impacting the Earth change the length of the day? How many cosmic rays would have passed through a 30 million-year-old bacterium?), as well as very much centred on U.S. idiosyncrasies (i.e., money, food, cars, and cataclysms), and some clearly require more background in physics or mechanics than you could expect from the layman (e.g., the energy of the Sun or of a photon, *P=mgh/t*, *L=mvr* (angular momentum), neutrino enery depletion, microwave wavelength, etc. At least the book does not shy away from formulas!) So *Guesstimation* and *Guesstimation 2.0 *do not make for a good bedtime read or even for a pleasant linear read. Except between two metro stations. Or when flying to Des Moines next to a drunk woman… However, they provide a large source of diverse examples useful when you teach your kids about sizes and magnitudes (it took me years to convince Rachel that 1 cubic meter was the same as 1000 liters!, she now keeps a post-it over her desk with this equation!), your students about quick and dirty computing, or anyone about their ability to look critically at figures provided in the newsy, the local journal, or the global politician. Or when you suddenly wonder about the energy produced by a Sun made of… gerbils! (This is Problem 8.5 in *Guesstimation* and the answer is as mind-boggling as the question!) Continue reading