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New Scientist Innumeracy

While reading the October 14th issue of New Scientist I came across the following statement in an article titled “Nuke test sends shock waves round the world”:

It may even have been only half a kiloton – the same explosive power as the terrorist bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995

Do you see something wrong with this sentence? A kiloton is a measure of nuclear explosive power. It is equivalent to one thousand tons of trinitrotoluene (TNT). Let us see if the above passes a test of reasonableness.

A half kiloton is 500 tons or 1,000,000 pounds of TNT. Now TNT is a ‘high explosive’, and the Oklahoma City bomb (and those of which I am quite familiar with from Belfast many years ago) are almost always made from nitrate fertilizer. While rather potent, they pack perhaps a fraction of the power per pound of a high explosive. So let us be conservative and give it a factor of two.

The quoted statement is therefor claiming a small truck pulled in front of the Murrah building loaded with about two million pounds of fertilizer.

How on Earth did the editors of a well known science magazine miss a hooter of this magnitude?

26 comments to New Scientist Innumeracy

  • Love it when “experts” out themselves as nothing of the sort. On Australian public TV last night, one of the “expert” talking heads they’d assembled said something along the lines of

    the conventional wisdom is that we require massive inflows of foreign capital due to our large current account deficit

    Er, these inflows of foreign capital add to the current account deficit…

  • Chris Harper


    On the one hand, even informed people make mistakes.

    On the other hand, journalists tend not to be experts in the matters in which they are writing, and are mostly innumerate at that.

    On the gripping hand, New Scientist has a clear political agenda, and has had for years.

  • Sarah

    What’s alarming is that there were several indications that this was a fundamentally wrong statement — you don’t have to do the math to realize that pretty much any kind of a nuclear blast wouldn’t have left half a building (okay, fine, 25%) standing, which we’ve all seen pictures of. Nor do you need to do any math to realize that an explosion the size of the one that hit the Murrah building wouldn’t have registered as much of anything special on siesmographs, since underground explosions of the approximate size of the Murrah attack are found in road/dam construction, and ordinary demolition projects of all sorts… we’d be hard pressed to sort out what the Koreans were talking about, and those hunting for the location would be grateful for the total lack of economic development in their countryside, if it were that small.

    And for heaven’s sake, it’s a science publication. I almost wonder if this was a “clarification” made by a copy editor at the last minute, as the science error would earn your average 12-year-old a rebuke in any classroom in the US or UK.

  • In the immortal words of B. Bunny…

    They’re Maroons.

  • The Turing test has failed! Someone who is obviously alot smarter than the people at the new sci have found a way around the anti-spambot code. Hunt them down and eviscerate them!

  • chuck

    What’s the problem? Five hundred ton trucks are a dime a dozen over here. Heck, even the little babes are pushed around in fifty ton prams. This is America. We think big.

    The New Scientist, BTW, is just a highbrow version of The Sun. Fun to read, but all the serious stuff is in Nature.

  • knirirr

    What is the alleged political agenda of New Scientist? I hardly ever read it these days, and so may well have missed it.

  • Robin Goodfellow

    Hey, what’s a few orders of magnitude between friends?

    Anyway, I’ve never been impressed by the “New Scientist”. Their quality of “science” is about at the same degree as, say, “OMNI” magazine was, if not less.

  • gravid

    A half kiloton in oklahoma…..the building wouldn’t be there anymore. UK magazines don’t fact check at all.

  • Jason

    I work for the same publisher and so far as I can tell, there is no agenda (‘agendum’ for the purists) other than making money. People often talk about media organisations with political agenda as if they were privately funded by shadowy organisations with vested interests, rather than advertisers keen on reaching a particular market (apposite to this, by the way, is the point that the readerships of NS and Nature are slightly different, hence the difference in editorial). The problem with this conspiracy theory is that it doesn’t stand up to any kind of commercial analysis – the powers that be are far more interested in keeping the city boys and shareholders happy than influencing world politics.

    As to the original issue at hand, I couldn’t possibly make any comment about my colleagues.

  • Oh. Well, okay.

    They must just be garden-variety idiots, then.

  • John K

    Give that man a job at The Lancet, they need his numerical expertise.

  • Brad

    ***Love it when “experts” out themselves as nothing of the sort. On Australian public TV last night, one of the “expert” talking heads they’d assembled said something along the lines of

    the conventional wisdom is that we require massive inflows of foreign capital due to our large current account deficit

    Er, these inflows of foreign capital add to the current account deficit…***

    A budgetary deficit is the budgeted outflows over inflows over the period budgeted, and would require an inflow of capital from some source to shore it up. Doing so increases the debt, the long term accumulation of incremental deficits.

    The US, too, is increasing treasuries sold to foreign holders to make current cash flows work out. Considering that the U.S. hands out aid to foriegn countries too, it is ridiculous that we borrow from Piter to pay Paulo.

  • george weinberg

    Actually, “kiloton” is a unit of energy. Power is energy per unit time.

  • Julian Morrison

    To me it immediately failed the smell test. Half a kiloton is a MOAB, level-a-few-blocks-of-Manhattan scale explosion. Not world shattering, but it is in nuclear territory. http://tinyurl.com/y572qn

    Whoever wrote this hasn’t even /thought/ about the scale of nukes, let alone done the math.

  • Michael Hiteshew

    Actually, “kiloton” is a unit of energy. Power is energy per unit time.

    Sorry, that is not true. Kiloton is a unit weight, simply meaning 1000 tons. KiloWatt is a unit of energy.

  • Jason – that makes commercial sense, but it flies in the face of the Fourth Estate’s lofty ideals of editorial separation. I can think of more than one Australian broadsheet newspaper steadily being run into the ground (ie. falling circulation) because the left-wing editorial inmates have taken over the asylum.

    In fact, I can think of two.

    I agree that if the audience that gravitates towards a particular editorial bias is not large enough to sustain the publication’s profitable existence, then that publication will eventually change its editorial bias or die. However, I don’t think it’s as pure a commercial decision as you make out.

  • Hey

    No bias… hahahaha oh god that’s a good one.

    Journalists are in business to “save the world”, “speak truth to power”, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” etc. No matter what the business people say, the writers that you hire will twist the publication to their ideals. The WSJ’s editorials are forthright, while their news people do all they can to subert this, meanwhile exhibiting their ignorance of and disdain for their readership and subject. The best example of this is the whole stock option backdating “scandal”.

    As to what .5 kilotons is… it is most definitely NOT a MOAB. That is a very effective and destructive bomb, but it is 2 orders of magnitude smaller than 500tons, coming in at 9.5 tons gross weight, 8.4 tons of high explosives, and 11.3 tons of TNT equivalent.

  • Sigivald

    Sarah: Well, nuclear warheads come down as low as 10 tons in yield (W54 warhead, SADM).

    And a 10 ton bomb going off near a structural concrete building might well not knock it down…

    (And, yes, the newspaper guy is still completely wrong.)

    Michael: Technically true as stated, but “kiloton of TNT”, which is the kiloton in question, is roughly a unit of rapid energy discharge, no?

  • Simon Jester

    Also, E=mc^2. :^)

  • Michael Hiteshew wrote, criticising the ignorance of those that know not their power from their energy:

    KiloWatt is a unit of energy.

    Mmmmmmmmmmmm; poor Joule.

  • veryretired

    The important comparison, at least to the author, was of a potentially dangerous terrorist weapon which might be sold to Islamicists by NK with a home-grown terrorist who is usually characterized as an ultra-conservative christian, even though his history didn’t support this classification.

    The asserted equivalence is much deeper than amounts of explosive power—ultimately it is a claim that NK’s lunatics are merely comparable to our own, and therefore both cultures are the same.

    When making an assertion this breathtakingly irrational, what does a little difference in explosive weight matter?

  • Eric

    New Scientist has lots of interesting articles, but I’ve noticed they’ve started to run quite a few more Popular Science-type we’ll-have-these-marvelous-flying-cars-any-day-now of late. I stopped reading Scientific American when they started dumbing-down the articles and adding more political tracts.

    Sci-Am’s move makes some sense, since the number of people in the US who able to follow anything below the 10,000 foot view is shrinking at an alarming rate. The high schools don’t teach much beyond self esteem anymore, and you can’t use self esteem to attack an article on quantum dot computing. As Fred Reed said, American kids are leaving high school with an education that would have embarrassed an eigth-grader in the ’50s.

    I just assumed New Scientist is having the same problem in the UK. Is that not true?

  • Nate


    Spot on, Eric. I lament the downfall of the once great Scientific American. *sigh* In my youth it was a wonderful popular outlet of interesting ideas that was able to keep a careful balance between rigor and readability. Today, it has succumbed to “soft science” and politics. I let my subsription lapse perhaps 3 years ago. I will likely never renew it.

  • Paul Marks

    Jason claims that the New Scientist people have no political agenda. So the all the statist anti-American stuff just appears in the magazine by accident?

    So people sit down at the keyboard and go into a trance, and then they wake up and say “did I type that? – well better put into the magazine”.

    In reality, journalists pick up a certain way of looking at the world at school and university (a statist, anti-American way of looking at the world) and their writing reflects this.

    However, anti-statist people (i.e. people who reject what the “education system” has tried to make them believe) are partly to blame for the political slant of things like the New Scientist. If they said “well I am interested in science, but I will not buy your magazine because of the political slant” then there might be change – for the very commercial reasons that Jason mentions.

    Sometimes this can go to absurd extremes. For example, one of the common things that conservative and libertarian minded people do in the United States is complain about the “New York Times” newspaper -“it is so leftist” (and so on).

    When asked why they continue to buy a newspaper they hate, they reply with such things as “it is a major newspaper, we must read it….”

    Failing to see that it is only a “major newspaper” because they buy it.

    When the circulation of such things finally falls enough to threaten their survival then there may be change (or they will go bankrupt – which achieves the same result).

    But continuing to buy a publication one hates clearly makes no sense. However, people still do it – I have even seen articles on the Ludwig Von Mises blog, written by fine Austrian school economists, going (line by line) through some absurd New York Times article.

    “How can it publish nonsense” is the general line. It (like so many other publications) continues to publish such things because people continue to buy it – if they want it to change (or stop existing) they have to STOP buying it.

  • hannah

    i just want to know how is it hard to become a scientist?????