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Millions, billions, zillions : defending yourself in a world of too many numbers
Kernighan B., PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, Princeton, NJ, 2018. 176 pp.  Type: Book (978-0-691182-77-3)
Date Reviewed: Jun 4 2019

This book is simultaneously entertaining, instructive (one might say educational), and worrying. After an (important) opening chapter, the author analyzes a statement from Newsweek that the US should tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), since it holds 660 billion barrels of oil. A rapid rough calculation shows that this should last the US 260 years, so what’s the problem? In fact, the reserve holds 660 million barrels, as Newsweek corrected a couple of weeks later. The author’s rough calculation is, he admits, almost certainly wrong in detail (for example, the refining process isn’t 100 percent efficient). But all of these concerns are irrelevant when the input is blatantly wrong.

This is basically the theme of the book: humorous but educational, debunking many of the very large numbers we see. He debunks a story that the US deficit is $1.3 billion by pointing out that this is $4/head; he suggests we each do without a fancy coffee one day per year and send the money to Washington. This “per capita” (or per acre or per household) technique is enormously powerful. This debunking carries over into metaphors (“seven layers of books covering the entire US”), graphs, and pictorial representations.

The author provides a very good treatment of scientific notation and metric prefixes. There is a great deal of sound advice in this book, which should be required reading for anyone writing articles that rely on numbers. It is clear from the range of sources, and the blatancy of the contradictions, that dropping or adding thousands, confusing “per day” with “per year,” and so on are far too common errors, depressingly often left uncorrected.

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Reviewer:  J. H. Davenport Review #: CR146587 (1907-0270)
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