The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Celsius, Fahrenheit and Journalists

Unfortunately, comments are closed on "Find the Error" on RealClimate.

So I'll use this space to point out that the error (equating a difference of 1 degree C equivalent to a difference of about 34 F) is not without precedent. The following is a submission from myself to the what was then the comp.risks usenet group in 1995.
I thought the RISKS readership shouldn't miss this gem, posted in sci.geo.meteorology by stevenb@pauli.jhuapl.edu (Steven Babin at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory):

> There seems to be some confusion over the giant iceberg. [...]
> The Reuters news agency reported that the iceberg was 656 feet 2
> inches thick, implying a tremendous accuracy of measurement. It
> is actually 200 m thick and the reporter converted this to English
> units. Reuters also reported that this event was the result of a
> 36.5 F increase in temperature since the 1940's. It was actually
> a 2.5 C increase. The reporter apparently converted this to F
> as a temperature rather than a temperature difference.
> I don't know whether this speaks more for the educational level of
> reporters or more for the fact we should all be using SI units.

The risks of the transmission of technical information by people who don't know what they are talking about will be familiar to RISKS readers. Perhaps more striking is the risk that something as simple as a Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion algorithm can be misused by making invalid assumptions about context.

Michael Tobis tobis@skool.ssec.wisc.edu

I am pleased to note that the RISKS Digest ("Forum On Risks To The Public In Computers And Related Systems") is still in business and still moderated by Peter Neumann. Or displeased. I'm not sure. There's too much to read....

2 comments:

Cassandra_Moderna said...

I know that one comment had already mentioned a 5 and a 9, but I just had to laugh at the rounding of 91 up to 100.

Unfortunately, such is the state of our educational system these days that it is no longer surprising that such nitwits hold sway.

Anonymous said...

At least NASA wouldn't make this kind of mistake. Heck, English and metric systems are basically the same when launching Mars probes.