The Atavism

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Memorialising my own folly

I'm usually a pretty cautious kind of a guy. I might be physically incapable of proofreading but I at least think these posts through and make sure I'm not committing any grave errors of science before I hit the publish button. Usually.

A couple of weeks ago I made fun of Garth George because he underestimated New Zealand's carbon emissions by some staggering amount. It turns I overestimated the degree of Garth George's underestimate. Or to put it another way, I screwed up that maths. Garth George is still spectacularly wrong, out by a factor of 375 000, but I had said he was out by about eight times more than that. In putting the graphics together I'd written down the inverse of George's error (about 2.75 millionths, or 2.75 x 10-6) to help me calculate the sizes for each triangle and when it came time to write up the post I mistook my notes, reading 2.75 x 106 or 2.75 million.

That's not an excuse, it should have been obvious to me, as someone who passed 3rd from maths, that 3.7 x108 couldn't be millions of times bigger than 1 x103 and in writing the post I should have caught it. It's all very embarrassing, but if you are going to make fun of people you have to be prepared to be treated in the same way. So, in that spirit, here's the magnitude of my error plotted for all to see:

And the worst bit, Garth George is still among the wrongest people in history but not quite on the same level as the Young Earth Creationists (and will no doubt be overtaken by Bill Gates at some stage, if he really said that thing they say he said):

Any physical science types reading this post might want to make a joke at the expense of biologists now, can I suggest this one:

A group of biologists and a group of mathematicians meet each other at a train station on their way to a conference on ecological modeling. The biologists each line up to buy a ticket, while a single mathematician collects a few coins from each his colleagues and buys a single ticket. Both groups board the train and before the biologists can ask what the mathematicians are up to one of them yells out that the conductor is on his way. The mathematicians leave on mass, cramming into one bathroom. The conductor arrives and clips the ticket of each biologist before knocking on the bathroom door and asking “tickets please”. The mathematicians slide their single ticket under the door, it gets clipped and the mathematicians get their train journey at a fraction of the cost the biologists paid.

The two groups run into each other again on the way home from the conference. This time the biologists are on to the game, so after exchanging a knowing wink with the mathematicians they send a representative off to get one ticket. But they are amazed to see the mathematicians don’t even bother with the single ticket that bought for the first journey. The biologists want to know what’s going on by the mathematicians stay tight lipped until their spy announces “conductor on his way”. The biologist scramble just as they’d seen the mathematicians do on the last trip, squeezing into a bathroom. In contrast, all but one of the mathematicians strolls down to the other bathroom in the train while the other approaches the biologists’ room, knocks on the door and asks “tickets please”.

(The moral of the story, biologists should think carefully before applying mathematical methods)

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Posted by David Winter 4:17 PM


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