Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

One, Two, Three! What Are We Counting For?

By Peter Bowditch

Number abuse is rife in online forums and even science news websites.

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I’ve written before about innumeracy, the inability to use numbers correctly. Recently I’ve been exposed to three cases of number abuse in different contexts. One of these involves people with an agenda using a very large and apparently frightening number that actually means nothing much at all; one is people with a different agenda treating a large number as if it is zero; and one is a scientific publication using a number that is obviously and ridiculously wrong.

Anyone who has spent any time with forums and publications from the anti-medicine or anti-science worlds will know that two of the most evil corporations in the world are Monsanto and Nestlé (if you ignore the pharmaceutical companies), Monsanto because it is trying to own and control the world’s agricultural production by patenting genetically modified plants, and Nestlé because of the harm it does by distributing milk formula in Third World countries.

California is currently in the grip of a severe drought, and as an Australian I am well aware of the threat caused by drought. There is a ghost town in Queensland that used to be the centre of a wool industry with 20 million sheep until a few consecutive years of drought wiped out the flock, the farmers and the town. A recent piece of hysteria in the US has focused on water extracted for bottling by Nestlé, which paid $542 for 27 million gallons of...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.