Lacking Common Sense as Opposed to Being Math Illiterate

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Ok, start with this. It isn’t good to lack common sense. Nor is it good to be math illiterate. One can certainly be both. One can be neither.

This post relates to distinguishing between the two conditions: lack of common sense and math illiteracy. As a reminder, neither is the ideal. The scenario is a real one: Brian Williams on MSNBC and others (including producers) were deconstructing Michael Bloomberg’s ad expenditure when he was running for president.

Several folks “examining” Mike Bloomberg’s $500 million ad expenditures were asking this question: What else could $500 million buy? That’s a legitimate question. There’s lots of ways that sum of money could be spent to better the lives of people. Several early childhood education centers could be fully funded. Several addiction facilities could be created. Housing for the homeless in LA could be developed. Hey, use your imagination here.

But, what the commentators did waslatch on to the math in a tweet the news station apparently received from a viewer. It basically said that Bloomberg’s $500 million dollar spending could be redistributed to every American; they’d each get $1 million plus. And, imagine how beneficial that would be. The latter sentence is true. If every man, woman and child in America got $1 million dollars dropped on them, that would be life altering for most; transformative for many.

But, here’s the glitch so to speak. For that to have happened, Bloomberg would have needed to spend 327 million times $1 million (not $1). And that yields one whopper of a number: $327,000,000,000,000 (assuming my math is right). That is not what Bloomberg spent; he spent $500,000,000. So, what happened? Brian Williams (and his colleagues who didn’t see the error either) made a major math goof on national television. And, it made folks laugh because they left off so many zeros.

The real answer is that if you re-distributed the $500 million Bloomberg expended among a population of some 327 million, each person would get $1.53 more or less. Not enough for a subway ride or even some candy bars. Not enough for a soda or a beer. Not enough for some newspapers. Not enough for a gallon of gas

There’s a lesson here and it isn’t about math illiteracy. What it shows me, instead, is that a common sense check wasn’t done by the commentators and news station. We should always ask if what we’re saying/writing/showing to an audience makes sense. Do a quick mental check before one opens one’s mouth or creates a graphic.

Here’s how a check would work, and it is one I use frequently when math is involved. It takes a second or two at most. State the problem in the reverse with the lowest and easiest numbers: If we have 327 million people and each gets $1, that would be $327 million. Simple math. Well, you would have caught the error right there.

Now, ramp it up: If every person gets $10, that would be $3.27 billion. See? Quick mental check using the numbers 1 and 10. All done in one’s head.

One would have seen immediately that there is no way every person in the US would get $1 million.

Here’s my point: test what we hear/say to determine veracity. If Brian Williams and company were had done this, they would have realized immediately that for their conclusion to work, Bloomberg would have spent one ridiculously large number. He spent a lot but not trillions. And Millions, Billions and Trillions aren’t the same.

Here’s what troubles me and here’s why I think the mistake was made: the media were so eager to blast Bloomberg’s spending in the millions that they lost their critical lens and found a facile answer that served and supported their position. The number $500 million seemed like such a grotesque expenditure that they then came up with a redistribution scheme that felt as righteous as his spending was unrighteous. In doing so, they abandoned all common sense and tried to make their point with even more force.

That is what should scare us — not math illiteracy.

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