Fake news or false precision?

I read this today (I won’t say where because I have no wish to embarrass the writer or the publication):

In the heart of Africa, energy giant Total is about to build the biggest heated oil pipeline in the world. To extract 1.033.417.417.032 litres of oil, it will displace thousands of farmers, pass through some of the most important elephant and chimpanzee reserves, and threaten crucial biodiversity hotspots.

Call me a geek, but I enjoy reverse-engineering nonsensical or innumerate statements to find out what they are trying to say. First, there is no such number as 1.033.417.417.032 Let’s assume that the dots were meant to be commas: 1,033,417,417,032 That’s quite a number, but at least it is a number. A fantastically precise number, the writer is claiming precision to one part in a trillion. The best Swiss chronometers claim one part in a hundred thousand. Isn’t it comforting to learn that crude oil production is ten million times more precise than Swiss chronometry?

So, how did this fantastic number arise? From a little background reading of proper sources, I learn that the reserve in question is “estimated at 6 billion barrels”. That’s a believable figure, properly stated. It means “we’re pretty sure the reserve is somewhere between 5½ and 6½ billion barrels”. That comes from an oil professional.

Then the innumerate journos move in: Go for the top of the range, 6.5 billion barrels. How big is a barrel anyway? Google it! A barrel = 158.987295 litres. Where’s the calculator? How do you write 6½ billion?
6,500,000,000 x 158.987295 = 1,033,417,417,500 litres. Look, nobody’s going to believe that 500 at the end. Change it, who’s to know – 1.033.417.417.032  Job done.

Sorry, guys, but the correct rendering in litres is “more than a trillion”. Next time, OK?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.