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Chris Gerrard – Exploring the world of Better Business Intelligence

Eleven Times Less Innumeracy

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“Moving to an advanced format of 4K sectors means about eight times less wasted space but will allow drives to devote twice as much space per block to error correction.”

This bit of nonsensical numerical fluff can be found at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8557144.stm

This “x times less” or “x times fewer” construction is becoming extremely annoyingly common.

A rational person instantly recognizes that there is no meaning to it, that a multiplication applied in a reduction context is intrinsically void of numerical content. In order for a multiplication operation to work there must be a specified quantity being multiplied. This popular emptiness lacks any such multiplied quantity—”less” is a perfectly nice and useful qualitative term, but it lacks the quantitative substance of a true multiplicand.

If the intent is to convey a measure of reduction, the proper construction is “x is {some fraction} of y”. Rewriting the bad BBC bit: “Moving to an advanced format of 4K sectors means about one-eighth as much space will be wasted but will allow drives to devote twice as much space per block to error correction.”

Of course, there’s some funkiness with the “but…” clause, but that’s another seven times less can or worms.

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Written by Chris Gerrard

March 9, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. For those who view “times more” and “percent more” as synonymous, “k times less” converts a positive number into a negative one if n > 1. But for those who interpret “X is k times more than y” with k = X/Y, then intrepting “X is k times less than Y” simply means k = Y/X. I don’t know of any statistical educator (aside from myself) who has ever taken a position on this matter.

    I asked 182 college students “What is 2 times less than 6?” 59 said three, 24 said zero, 37 said minus six, 10 said minus 12, 2 said 12 and 50 said “I don’t know.” For more details see my paper at http://www.StatLit.org/pdf/2010SchieldICOTS.pdf

    Statistical educators, journalism faculty and quantitative journalists need to meet, discuss this and see if they can agree on a policy. Contact me if you are interested.

    Milo Schield

    March 15, 2010 at 11:34 pm


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