These Dang Republicans
3:10 To Yuma

Words and Numbers

As you may have seen, people have been having a lot of fun with this:

The actual number of dollars per citizen, of course is not 1,000,000, but 1 (sticking with whole numbers). It is a ludicrous mistake, and I had my laugh. And I wouldn't bother to comment on it, but I got to thinking about it, and I think I can see the mental mechanism that probably led to the mistake. I suspect it has to do with the use of the word "millions" instead of numerals. You see this:

Mike spent 500 [million]. There are 327 [million] people in this country. If he had distributed his 500 [millions] equally among the people, how many [millions] would each have received?

Since both numbers are a count of "millions," the mind tends to drop the words and focus only on the numbers:

Mike spent 500. There are 327 . If he had distributed his 500 equally....

Any third grader can see that 327 goes into 500 once, but not twice. So the answer is "one each, with something left over," right? 

Only of course it's massively, massively wrong. The first "million" is not a single object, but 1,000,000 objects. If you saw the problem presented with numbers instead of words, the string of zeroes would keep you from making that mental slip: 

500,000,000 / 327,000,000 = 1 and some remainder

500,000,000 / 327,000,000 obviously ≠ 1,000,000

Unless of course you're the sort of person who tends to skip numbers, but in that case you wouldn't make the mistake, either, because you wouldn't think about it.

That no one caught this before it was discussed on MSNBC, that both the host and the guest (a member of the New York Times editorial board!) sat there exchanging amazed remarks about the riches that could have been everyone's if Bloomberg had not squandered it on his political campaign, is pretty astonishing. 

I was about to say that what they lacked was what people who deal with data and calculations of various sorts call a "sanity check": asking whether a result is even within the bounds of reason and possibility. If a policeman's radar tells him that a car is going 1,000 mph, something is wrong with the radar or his reading of it. But anyone ought to have questioned that number. How many people behind the scenes saw that same tweet and assisted in getting it on the air, but never noticed that it was nuts? Why did no one think "A million per person, 327 million people...hang on, that's got to be way more than 500 million." (It's actually in the trillions, 327 of them.)

"It all became clear." "It's an incredible way of putting it." Yes, it is incredible, but not in the way you mean it.

As many have noted, this does provide some insight into those who believe that we can fund all sorts of massively expensive social programs--universal health care and the like--simply by "taxing the rich." Charles Cooke at National Review has filled in some of the details about that fallacy.


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This is funny, Mac. As an old IT guy you still feel the need to "decode". As a strictly humanities person I could only read it quickly, not quite concerned with whether or not it made sense. :-)

However, I still think we can take a lot of money away from the military, probably shut down at least two of its branches, and then somehow do a better job with healthcare for our citizens.


So you belong to the Actually, Wishes *Are* Horses school of health care reform? :-)

I would feel a little sorry for those two people making such fools of themselves if they weren't the sort who think they're so much smarter than everybody else, especially conservatives. Especially where "science" is concerned.


And yeah, it is sort of funny that I analyzed that.

Rob G

I know someone who got into trouble with the IRS because her accountant mistakenly put an extra zero on her company car's mileage for the year, resulting in 110,000 rather than 11,000. Never mind that it's virtually impossible that a part-time local real estate agent would have put 110,000 claimable miles on her car in one year (that comes to over 2000 miles a week). Nine years later she's still trying to get it corrected.


It is amazing that it got as far as people discussing it on tv


I know. And they're *so* earnest. That makes it funnier.

Mistakes happen. Not being able to get that 110,000 corrected would be maddening. I used to have a 60-mile (roundtrip) commute. That only added up to 15,000 miles per year.

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