Does it irk you when journalists don't do units properly?

I am forever reading about how this or that country had an electrical power output of so many kW in a year (just kW, not kWh). And here is an article about the volume of California sea cliffs being described in "meters":

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news...side-homes-or-public-beaches-from-rising-seas
“For the highest sea-level rise scenario, taking an average cliff height of more than 25 meters, the total cliff volume loss would be more than 300 million meters by 2100,” it says.

What the heck is this supposed to mean? 300 million meters is a considerable portion of the distance to the Moon.

Last edited:
davenn

CWatters
Homework Helper
Gold Member
The Media in the UK only understand "houses" as a measure of power. As in "the wind farm will generate enough to power X thousand houses". Their unit of weight (or mass as it's the same thing to them) is the Elephant. Height and length are in double decker busses. The unit of area is the football pitch.

XZ923, davenn, cnh1995 and 2 others
russ_watters
Mentor
Yes, swapping power for energy is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

300 million meters .
The Media in the UK only understand "houses" as a measure of power. As in "the wind farm will generate enough to power X thousand houses". Their unit of weight (or mass as it's the same thing to them) is the Elephant. Height and length are in double decker busses. The unit of area is the football pitch.
Banana for scale.

The Media in the UK only understand "houses" as a measure of power. As in "the wind farm will generate enough to power X thousand houses". Their unit of weight (or mass as it's the same thing to them) is the Elephant. Height and length are in double decker busses. The unit of area is the football pitch.

Their unit of volume is the "Olympic-sized swimming pool".

PhysOrg news editors seem to have a persistent problem displaying powers of ten.

Sorry, had a much longer post, but one of our cats managed to erase it...

Ryan_m_b
Staff Emeritus
The Media in the UK only understand "houses" as a measure of power. As in "the wind farm will generate enough to power X thousand houses". Their unit of weight (or mass as it's the same thing to them) is the Elephant. Height and length are in double decker busses. The unit of area is the football pitch.

I don't mind this so much. It conveys the information well enough and is pitched at an appropriate level for the audience. There's a fine line in science communication between not acknowledging your audience's scientific knowledge and being too technical to convey your message and simplifying the information you are trying to convey to the point it's misleading or incorrect. The media often do the latter (with an extra factor of an agenda to push) but going the other way isn't going to be helpful either.

StatGuy2000, Ygggdrasil and russ_watters
davenn
Gold Member
2021 Award
The one that irks me and my storm chaser, meteorology mates is the media's use of the term "mini tornado"

There is NO such thing as a mini tornado, never has been. It's either a tornado or it isn't.
And if it is, this there is a scale to be used... the old Fujita scale or the new ( some years now) EF, Enhanced Fujita scale

Dave

russ_watters
FactChecker
Gold Member
I have reached the first level of acceptance of the World as it is -- I accept that the World is a very imperfect place. I have not reached the second level of acceptance -- being at peace with the fact that most people are perfectly happy with the situation as it is, and are not motivated to improve it. ;>)

PS. If the World was perfect, I would not fit in at all. But it is very imperfect and I fit in just fine.

russ_watters
Mentor
The Media in the UK only understand "houses" as a measure of power. As in "the wind farm will generate enough to power X thousand houses".
*Ahem* - if that's what they say, I'd bet lunch that they're misusing it. "Houses" should be a unit of energy, not power. One of the ways intermittent renewables advocates get you is swapping them in order to overstate the capabilities of what they are advocating.

...but I'd only bet lunch because everyone uses the term "power plant" instead of "energy plant".
I don't mind this so much. It conveys the information well enough and is pitched at an appropriate level for the audience. There's a fine line in science communication between not acknowledging your audience's scientific knowledge and being too technical to convey your message and simplifying the information you are trying to convey to the point it's misleading or incorrect. The media often do the latter (with an extra factor of an agenda to push) but going the other way isn't going to be helpful either.
Agreed! To put a finer point on it, I don't consider the unit to be any more arbitrary (if less well defined) than a light year or better yet a parsec. It's not wrong, it's just bite-sized. To put an even finer point on it, *I* use it in presentations to techncial audiences! Example:

If I tell a group of scientists and HVAC engineers that "a fume hood uses 80,000 kWh (or 300,000 MJ) of combined HVAC energy per year," eyes glaze over. But when I tell them "a fume hood uses more energy than your house" I get "wow"s and eyebrow-raises.
I have reached the first level of acceptance of the World as it is -- I accept that the World is a very imperfect place.
The reason this issue bothers me so much is what it is and represents: casual illiteracy for a profession that otherwise requires a high level of literacy. If a reporter or worse an editor is constantly using the wrong form of the word "your", they make their paper look bad and they won't last long at their job. But nobody cares if they constantly flip power and energy because their illiteracy isn't any worse than that of the general public when it comes to science (and they don't recognize there may be a corellation). And evidently, that's ok. It isn't ok to me. Professional responsibility should be taken more seriously than that. I mean: a reporter (or anyone else) with a <8th grade literacy would look like an idiot. But a <8th grade science literacy? Pffft. No big deal.

We've discussed that broader double-standard before; on how society views what it means to be "educated". Scientific literacy is a non-factor.

Last edited:
Ryan_m_b
The Media in the UK only understand "houses" as a measure of power. As in "the wind farm will generate enough to power X thousand houses". Their unit of weight (or mass as it's the same thing to them) is the Elephant. Height and length are in double decker busses. The unit of area is the football pitch.

I agree wholeheartedly that it's annoying, but I would add the caveat that this is not a new phenomenon, and it's not restricted to the media. The reason the term "horsepower" exists is because James Watt needed a way to advertise his steam engine and found the most convenient method was to simply provide an analogy to a draft horse, which his potential customers were already well aware of. They didn't understand the concept of "foot-pounds", but they did understand "it will do the work of [fill in depending on model]" horses!" And we still use it today! There is no scientific reason whatsoever to describe anything in "horsepower" anymore, but we still do. Why? Because it "sounds cool" and people are used to it. The deep voices in the background of car commercials would have less impact if they described their vehicles in actual units of measure, so we continue to compare Ferraris to draft horses.

Framing a statement in a manner that the audience has a reference point to has probably been around for as long as humanity has been measuring things, and unfortunately probably isn't going away any time soon. My biggest issue with it is not so much the use of the analogies to frame the statement but rather in the way they're often used to slant reporting to the journalist's own viewpoint rather than reporting in a strictly objective fashion. Many in the media (and I'm not picking sides because frankly they're all guilty to some degree) like to blend fact and opinion while presenting the whole package as strictly factual. That's the part that irritates me to no end.

FactChecker
gmax137
"Houses" should be a unit of energy, not power.

I'm not so sure about that, since it is the amount of energy over some time period that we are usually interested in. Even you :

"a fume hood uses 80,000 kWh (or 300,000 MJ) of combined HVAC energy per year," eyes glaze over. But when I tell them "a fume hood uses more energy than your house" I get "wow"s and eyebrow-raises.

"80,000 kWh per year" or about 9 kW (or 12 hp). Yes I know this is an average (over the year) but we aren't sizing the breakers.

My beef with "houses" as a unit is,
(1) not well defined - I have been using about 350 kW-hr per month (a half kW); where my previous house used more than twice that (different climate). I suspect most people don't really know how much juice they use in their house.
(2) we already have perfectly good units for power & energy.

BTW, the casual illiteracy you discuss in your post is a very good point!. I never thought of it quite like that until you pointed it out.

russ_watters
russ_watters
Mentor
I'm not so sure about that, since it is the amount of energy over some time period that we are usually interested in. Even you :

"80,000 kWh per year" or about 9 kW (or 12 hp). Yes I know this is an average (over the year) but we aren't sizing the breakers.
Fair enough. Energy output per year is technically power, but it isn't a named and standard/combined unit like the watt. I always say it as "energy per year". If you want to go further, t's a double-hybrid, containing three separate units of time.
My beef with "houses" as a unit is,
(1) not well defined - I have been using about 350 kW-hr per month (a half kW); where my previous house used more than twice that (different climate).
Google tells me 11,000 kWh per year. My main problem with that is that it is ambiguous when it comes to heat.
I suspect most people don't really know how much juice they use in their house.
IMO, you're arguing against your position with that statement.
(2) we already have perfectly good units for power & energy.
...that people don't know, as you said. It's like saying I can drive my car for a week on one tank of gas. You don't have to know how much energy that is, which is why it is useful.
BTW, the casual illiteracy you discuss in your post is a very good point!. I never thought of it quite like that until you pointed it out.
Thanks!