Innumeracy strikes again

Mathematical illiteracy leads to muddled statements

Back in 1988, John Allen Paulos published a book identifying and explaining mathematical mistakes in published articles. Innumeracy: Mathematic Illiteracy and its Consequencesled to lots of discussions and to some journalism departments adopting curricula intended to avoid this problem.

Yet innumeracy has not gone away.

One recent example from a piece by the press outlet of a powerful conservative advocacy group in Maine involves improperly understanding “millionaire” and “billionaire” as referring to specific amounts of wealth, rather than rangesof wealth.

In particular, the short piece wonders if Donald Sussman, the husband of Rep. Chellie Pingree (a Democrat who represents Maine’s first congressional district) is a billionaire and if he misstated his wealth by “a factor of a thousand” by saying he is a millionaire.

Innumeracy is seen in the phrase “by a factor of a thousand.”

The statement only makes sense if millionaire means someone with $1 million and billionaire means someone with $1 billion.

They don’t.

“Millionaire” actually refers to anyone with wealth between one million dollars and just under one billion dollars. This is like people who are “not millionaires” who earn under a million dollars. They could have $4000 in wealth, or $40,000 or $400,000 — even $999,999.

Thus, if someone had wealth of $500 million, his or her wealth would be one-half of $1 billion, under by a factor of two, not a thousand.

I have no idea how much money Sussman has, but he could have $999 million and be considered a millionaire, not a billionaire.

By the way: On the actual wealth held by Sussman, this is easy to discern, since each year Forbes publishes a list of billionaires. (Also interesting is the Forbes annual list of the 400 richest Americans.) Moreover, as the short piece points out, now that Sussman has married Pingree, the information will be on the required congressional disclosure forms. Once the press outlet has checked the already published list by Forbes and the forthcoming disclosure forms, it can determine –and report — if Sussman is a billionaire.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.