Monday, February 02, 2009

And In Today's Mindlessness...

The theoretical role of New Zealand media is to inform and entertain. In fulfilling the first of these functions, you'd imagine that basic literacy and numeracy would be key ingredients. Sadly, that expectation is sometimes disappointed.

Here, the New Zealand Herald reports on the National Institute of Air and Water (NIWA) summary of January's weather. Take a brief look at both the NIWA press release and the Herald article, and you'll see that it's virtually a cut and paste. One of the few places where the Herald reporter departs from the NIWA text is in the statement that:

Sunshine hours were more than double normal for most of the country except Southland and Otago, where they were near or below average.

This turns out to be one of the things seized on by the headline writer, who declares January hotter than normal with twice as much sun - NIWA.

Twice as much sun? Now, we know that, childhood memories notwithstanding, a New Zealand summer hardly offers unlimited sunshine. But if you guessed that on average about 8 0r 9 of the possible 14 hours per day during the summer months are sunny, you'd be on the right track.

Therefore, in order for it to be twice as sunny, we would not only have to pass the entire month without a single cloud, but the sun would have to stay above the horizon 2--4 hours longer than is permitted by physical laws.

Look back at the NIWA press release and you'll see what they actually reported:

January sunshine totals were above average (more than 110% of normal) for most of New Zealand, except in Southland and Otago where they were near or below average.

So, sunshine was at least 110% of normal, or 10% above the average. For 'double normal' to be the correct interpretation, it would have to have said '210% of the average', or '110% more than average. But it hardly takes mathematical or even grammatical sophistication to spot the mistake -- common sense will do.

This is a small point, and it's only the weather, but when a newspaper aspires to inform you about the world and help shape your opinions, it's worth checking their grasp on reality.

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