The Sad Lesson of Million-Gate

As Snopes (and lots of others) have reported:

On March 3, 2020, a Twitter user posted a message that claimed former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could have given each American $1 million for the amount he spent on advertisements during his failed 2020 U.S. presidential candidacy:

The tweet reached a much larger audience a few days later when it was uncritically presented by MSNBC anchor Brian Williams and Mara Gay, a member of the The New York Times editorial board:

The problem, it seems to me, isn’t just that Williams and Gay made an arithmetical mistake; mistakes happen.

It’s that they didn’t have the basic math sense to realize that something was off. Agreeing with an assertion that $500 million split among 327 million Americans would be, say, $3 per person would be an arithmetical mistake; it shouldn’t be that hard to quickly realize that 500/327 is about 1.5 rather than about 3, but one can easily flub that.

But $1 million for each American should obviously be vastly more than $500 million. Likewise, $500 million split among 327 million should obviously be vastly less than $1 million. More broadly, just as a matter of common sense, given that the average American’s yearly income is somewhere under $100,000 (all of us should have a sense of that from ordinary life, even if we don’t know the exact number off the top of our heads), no one American is going to spend ten times the national GNP on a political campaign.

The point of basic numeracy, I think, isn’t that people should know their multiplication table or be able to do long division. It’s that people should have a rough understanding of numbers that they can drawn on in situations like this, to know what makes sense and what doesn’t. Sad to see that lacking here.

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