Innumeracy in the popular press

What’s wrong with the third sentence quoted below?

Duke Energy Renewables and Colorado Springs Utilities are developing a new solar energy generating facility in Colorado Springs.

With more than 220,000 solar panels on about 700 acres, the new Palmer Solar project will generate 60 megawatts of electricity for Colorado Springs Utilities’ customers. It generates enough electricity to power approximately 22,000 homes per year.

Yes, it jumps off the page at you.  The words “per year” should not be there.  (You can see the original article here.)  

What the writer seemingly mixes up is a thing, and a rate at which the thing happens.  It’s like mixing up miles with miles per hour.  

In the context of consumer electric power, what the writer might be mixing up is “power” and “energy”.  

There are dozens of enormous photovoltaic array electric power generation projects being built right now at various locations across the US.  More than one of the projects exceeds a square mile in area.  I clicked around to read some of the news stories about these solar projects, and I saw that quite often a writer would try to explain this same kind of thing — the approximate number of residential homes that could be powered by the solar project.  And I was disappointed to see this same “per year” mistake having happened over and over again.

Here is but one more of many other examples of this that I found when clicking around in the news:

A large 375-megawatt solar farm is currently being developed for a 2,100-acre plot 10 miles southwest of Lima in Auglaize County.  …

A facility of that size would be able to power the equivalent of 55,000 homes per year, or all of Allen County, by harnessing solar energy with an extensive grid of solar panels.

(Original article.)

I suppose what must be going on is a three-step process.  First, a company that gets such a project going decides to announce the launch with a press release, and the easiest way to do this is to crib from some earlier press release by the same company or by some other company that launched an earlier solar-array project.  And in that earlier press release, the “per year” mistake was made, so the mistake gets replicated mutatis mutandis.  Second, the press release is received at newspapers and other media outlets, and a reporter massages the press release into a news article.  The mistake is preserved.  Third, the editor at the newspaper or other media outlet snoozes through the mistake.  So the mistake once again reaches the eyes of readers.

There is a recognized term “innumeracy” that is a counterpart to “illiteracy”.   Just as an illiterate person is one who cannot read or write, an innumerate person is one who cannot handle numbers competently.  The way it ought to be is that there should be very little innumeracy around us, just as there should be very little illiteracy around us.  Things like this newspaper article, however, remind me that innumerate people surround us.  They write press releases for solar-array developers, they somehow hold jobs as newspaper reporters, and, I guess as reminders of the Peter Principle, they get promoted from reporter to editor.  

And, I despair to think, get elected to Congress and get appointed to many positions of authority.

I trace this learning failure to high school math class or high school science class.  I guess by now more than a generation has come and gone during which many or even most high school students somehow slip through and graduate without ever being forced to learn what I think of as basic math skills and basic calculation skills.  Some of this is not even math, it is just terminology.  One cannot and ought not to attempt to compare the magnitude of a thing with the magnitude of the rate at which a thing happens or the rate at which a thing is produced or the rate at which a thing is consumed.   Rates and things are different.  

6 Replies to “Innumeracy in the popular press”

  1. Carl, you hit the nail on the head. All this, IMHO, just shows the failure of our schools, mostly middle and high schools. Stop graduating young adults not being able to think critically, talking about “I’m good with math, it’s algebra that I couldn’t …”, not having even fundamental knowledge of sciences, etc. Yet, it looks like US spends more per student than most, if not all, countries in the world. Will we ever fix this fundamental problem?

  2. Yes surely one source of failure for some children is their schools. But the parents need to take responsibility as well, constantly setting expectations that the children will be diligent doing their homework, paying attention in school, learning as much as they can in class.

  3. graduate without ever being forced to learn [math]

    failure of our schools […] Stop graduating young adults not being able to think critically […] not having even fundamental knowledge of sciences

    parents need to […] [set] expectations that the children will be diligent doing their homework, paying attention in school

    Oh, come on. That stuff is easy to say when you’re smart and enjoy math and science. But not every kid is smart and highly motivated. And even smart kids can be turned off by the way math and science are taught in schools, usually in isolation. “For every epsilon over the set R, there exists a delta in R that…” I can hear snores all the way from Seattle.

    Although I agree these mistakes are grating and annoying, at a time when newspapers are being bought by vultures and newsroom staff are being slashed, forcing out the most experienced and most talented, it seems unrealistic to expect that those left will will have a scientist’s, engineer’s, or patent attorney’s understanding science, math, or units. For that matter, many graduates smart enough to get physics and math degrees are eschewing careers in those fields for better money on Wall Street, or in the data science industry, or as patent attorneys.

  4. Uh, so, let’s see. I guess what you are saying is, I need to dial down my expectations of what I get when I pay for a news article.
    Maybe I pay for it by paying money. As I do for The Guardian or the Washington Post or The New York Times. Or I pay for it by suffering through the banner ads in the web site of the newspaper that I am complaining about. And the pop-ups that cover half of the page for the first 45 seconds of my visit on the page. And the odd little rectangle ads that pop up at the lower left and lower right until I click them away.

    Somebody is getting a paycheck from all of this.

    1. Heh. I’m taking a descriptive position as to what expectations are realistic of some web site that isn’t the New York Times or the Post or the Guardian in 2021, not presuming to tell you what you need to do.

      IMO, what is realistic to expect of a media outlet seems to depend on how much you really paid for the content, whether you really think it’s “news”, and whether you have some reason to expect better from the outlet involved.

      I don’t know much about DailyEnergyInsider and I don’t know if it’s a “newspaper” or something else. It’s got a Washington DC phone number, so it might be something else. And I also don’t know whether DEI originates its own editorial content (as opposed to nearly stenographically reproducing press releases). If the outlet were E and E News, an energy-news specialist website that does produce its own editorial content and charges multiples of BNA subscription rates, I would expect better.

      Admittedly, the Colorado Springs Gazette did a better job with this. Instead of “22,000 homes per year”, the Gazette wrote “each year”, which arguably could be correct in the sense that “each year” does not connote a rate.

      However, the original article appears to have been slightly modified from a release two days earlier from the Duke Power press shop, which included the “22,000 homes per year” language. Similar articles appeared elsewhere with the same problem you noted. It’s not an excuse–the Gazette caught the error–but it’s also not surprising that other outlets deferred to an electric utility’s own characterization of its project’s generation capacity. At least they didn’t refer to something in units of “football fields”.

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