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Does Anyone Have A Feeling For Numbers Anymore?

The Boston Globe, in its usual blundering math-challenged media way, blithely published an editorial the other day that included this hilarious "fact"

Since June, Israel has limited its exports to Gaza to nine basic materials. Out of 9,000 commodities (including foodstuffs) that were entering Gaza before the siege began two years ago, only 20 commodities have been permitted entry since. Although Gaza daily requires 680,000 tons of flour to feed its population, Israel had cut this to 90 tons per day by November 2007, a reduction of 99 percent. Not surprisingly, there has been a sharp increase in the prices of foodstuffs.

OK, the Gaza has over a million residents, but do these 1.4 million people really require 1.36 million pounds of flour a day??  I find that hard to believe, and amazing that no editor even asked the question, much less checked.

Update:  Did a search.  Found this.  The Palestinian ministry puts consumption around 350 tons per day.  That makes a bit more sense.  Congratulations on missing the number by over 3 orders of magnitude.  You can bet they are doing a lot of quality fact-checking on those global warming estimates too.

Update 2: I agree with the commenter that the number they should have used was something like 680,000 pounds rather than tons.  I would have written it off as a typo, transposing tons for pounds, but the math was based on it being tons, not pounds, so it is not just a typo issue.

Posted on January 29, 2008 at 12:41 PM | Permalink


i think they just got the unit wrong.

350 tons = 700,000 pounds, which is very close to the 680,000 number they cite.

of course, mistaking a pound for a ton is no small matter either...

Posted by: morganovich | Jan 29, 2008 1:02:20 PM

Has no one else caught the irony yet? Warren, I believe you intended to write "1.36 billion pounds of flour per day." I fear you may have moved into a glass house...

Posted by: Bill | Jan 29, 2008 2:11:28 PM

Maybe someone told them about how potentially explosive grain elevators can be.

Posted by: SuperMike | Jan 29, 2008 2:47:20 PM

The reduction of 99% is way off too. Copyeditors should catch math errors that big, this is really sad.

Posted by: nicole | Jan 30, 2008 5:56:36 AM

Why would they let a little thing like facts ruin a good news story? It got it's point (at least from their view. The mean Israelis, how dare they pick on the poor innocent Palestinians.

Posted by: Jim Collins | Jan 30, 2008 6:18:43 AM

"calculator generations" eg. engineers used to always have to understand the order of magnitude of the answer to get it correct, if using log tables or slide rules. Once people just plugged numbers into calculators we saw answers wrong by several orders of magnitude (digits correct though) cf pilots and pounds not litres of fuel (the most famous example is GIMLI http://www.iasa.com.au/folders/Safety_Issues/others/GimliGlider.html)

Posted by: smcg | Jan 30, 2008 1:04:16 PM

"I believe you intended to write "1.36 billion pounds of flour per day."

Ah, someone else who dives for the calculator when numbers are being bandied about. Now, that's having a feel for numbers.

Posted by: Craig | Jan 30, 2008 4:54:39 PM

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