Ben Langhinrichs

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July, 2003
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Civility in critiquing the ideas of others is no vice. Rudeness in defending your own ideas is no virtue.


Tue 22 Jul 2003, 02:51 PM
On CNN.com today, the headline reads: Astronomical: Study counts 70 sextillion stars

If you read the story, it is not until the fourth paragraph that you get a vague hint that the counting wasn't really counting at all, when the phrase "was calculated by" is used instead of "was counted by".  It is not until the fifth paragraph that the article clarifies that "the number was drawn up based on a survey of one strip of sky, rather than trying to count every individual star".  Furthermore: "Within the strip of sky some 10,000 galaxies were pinpointed and detailed measurements of their brightness taken to calculate how many stars they contained. "

OK, so first, only a survey of one small strip of sky was done, and everything was extrapolated from that.  Second, the brightness of a galaxy was used to calculate the number of stars, with no particular evidence that it wasn't twice as many dimmer stars or half as many stronger ones.  Finally, this is extrapolated not just across the sky, but "multiplied again out to the edge of the visible universe", whatever that means.  I am not a scientist, but the likelihood of serious error has exceeded any possible value by this point.  On top of that, studies show that most people don't read beyond the fourth paragraph of any given news story, so nobody even knew this was a wild guess at best.

"So what?" I hear you mutter under your breath.  With stars, it hardly matters, but this is exactly the way Microsoft counts seats when it claims to be dominant in collaboration/e-mail/pick-some-other-category.  Use a lot of fuzzy math; pile the estimates on estimates;  discount other reasonable interpretations, and then declare a number, with all caveats buried on a website seven clicks from nowhere.  And guess what, people believe them, just the way they believe the astronomers!

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