March 25, 2006

Op-Ed arithmetic at the NYT

In a 3/25/2006 NYT Op-Ed piece "A Fine that Fits the Crime", Gary Weiss describes a recent $250-million settlement agreement between the SEC and Bear Stearns:

When compared to what most people would define as "income," the penalty shrinks to a hair under one-fifteenth (one-14.6th, to be exact) of Bear Stearns's gross revenue of $3.6 billion during the first quarter.

But 1/15 is .0666... while 1/14.6 is .0685... And 250,000,000/3,600,000,000 is actually exactly 1/14.4, which is 0.0694... So the penalty is not "a hair under one-fifteenth of Bear Sterns's gross revenue", but rather 4.2% greater than one-fifteenth of Bear Sterns's gross revenue, at least given the figures cited.

This leaves us to wonder. Did Weiss make a verbal or mathematical slip? Or is he interpreting "under" to refer only to the denominator of the fraction? Either way, he needs a better editor, given that he's writing popular books about financial matters.

Normally I wouldn't mention such an inconsequential slip, but my bedtime reading last night happened to include Judith Miller as quoted in the April Vanity Fair:

The bloggers were without editing, without a way for people to understand what was good, what was well reported -- to distinguish between the straight and the slanderous. Things would get instantly picked up, magnified, and volumized ... I was appalled, not by the blogs -- that would be like getting appalled at the Industrial Revolution -- but by my colleagues, who believed what they read on the blogs.

Funny, that's just how I feel about most science reporting in the popular press. Bloggers might not have editors, but most of us can handle fractions.

[Update 3/28/2006: John Bauman writes

I just wanted to note that 1/14.6 is exactly 250,000,000/3,650,000,000. I suspect that Weiss just used Banker's rounding on the original number he was given (and didn't inform us of this fact).

Banker's rounding is "rounding to the nearest even number", so the idea here is that Weiss (or one of his sources or assistants or editors) modified 3,650,000 to 3,600,000 before calculating the fraction. That would explain the "14.6", but not the "under". ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 25, 2006 02:21 PM