Wednesday, June 11, 2003
The Numbers Game
This month's print editions of IEEE Spectrum features an article by Jonathan G. Koomey of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, author of Turning Numbers into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving. His nit to pick: The way bogus numbers get published, then refuted, but the bogus numbers continue to get published.
His issue: It's not the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the war with the Taliban; it's four assertions about the volume of knowledge on the net and the use of electric power by computers and electronic devices.
True or false:The column goes on to point to published refutations of each of the above items, out also to show the trail of each already-refuted claim through continuing articles and columns. It demonstrates how the bogus numbers lead to bad decisions: For example, the information volume numbers were used to influence the building of excess capacity for the networking infrastructure of the USA.
The author points out six simple things that can be done to check whether numbers make sense. There are more details about these at the web site for the Numbers Into Knowledge book.
Good stuff. Unfortunately, it's only available online to IEEE members, but the dead-tree version is carried by many university libraries and is available for purchase at the larger chain bookstores.
p.s. Koomey's study on energy usage by computers and the net is available here.